Arnold O. Beckman

Cofounder, UCI Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic

Dr. Arnold O. Beckman, founder of Beckman Instruments, Inc., created devices that revolutionized the study and understanding of chemistry and human biology. Dr. Beckman often said, “There is no satisfactory substitute for excellence.” This philosophy, combined with his personal integrity and love for science, guided his life and helped shape both his company and his highly decorated career.

 Arnold Orville Beckman’s Early Years

 Born in the small farming community of Cullom, Illinois, on April 10, 1900, young Arnold Beckman‘s interest in science began when he was 9 years old upon finding a chemistry book in the family attic. Not long after reading “Steele’s Fourteen Weeks in Science”, his father converted a section of their backyard tool shed into a makeshift chemistry lab. He began a more serious study of science during high school, where his teachers quickly recognized his talents and enrolled him in several chemistry classes at the nearby University of Illinois. Throughout his school years, he also tapped into his creative talents by playing piano in silent movies to help support his family and fund his education.

When he completed high school in 1918 as the class valedictorian, World War I was underway, and Arnold enlisted in the Marines. He completed boot camp and was sent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to debark for the European theater. Shortly after he arrived in Brooklyn, however, the armistice had been signed, and he never left the country. At a Red Cross Thanksgiving dinner in 1918 he met Mabel Meinzer and her mother serving meals for the troops. Arnold and Mabel dated for several months, and continued a long distance relationship over the next several years.

After the war, Arnold Beckman returned to his college studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign where he received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1922, followed by his master’s degree in physical chemistry one year later. One of his college professors convinced Arnold to join him at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to begin his postdoctoral studies.

 Mabel Meinzer’s Early Years

 Mabel Meinzer Beckman was born on December 20, 1900, in Brooklyn, NY. Her mother, Alice, was from Ireland, having immigrated to the U.S. from Castlecomer, a small mining town in County Kilkenny. Her father was from New Jersey. She had an older brother, Walter, and a younger brother, Charlie. She went to high school on Long Island and entered Pratt Institute to study art. As a young adult, Mabel liked to draw and did some oil painting using photographs and picture postcards as subjects. She spent one year at Pratt and then started working as an executive secretary at an insurance company.

Her plans changed forever on Thanksgiving Day 1918, as World War I was ending. Mabel and her mother were Red Cross volunteers, and as they were serving Thanksgiving dinner to the troops at the U.S.O, she met a young marine, Arnold Beckman, who was stationed at the Brooklyn navy shipyard. Arnold and Mabel went on several dates after the war ended, and then they maintained a long-distance relationship for seven years while Arnold finished his college studies and started his research laboratory at Caltech.

 Arnold and Mabel Beckman

 Arnold and Mabel had maintained a relationship and correspondence for seven years, and in 1924 Arnold paused his fledgling scientific career at Caltech and moved back to New York to visit Mabel and work at the Bell Telephone Laboratory, where he learned about the new electronic circuits that would revolutionize the communication industry. In 1925, the two were married in Bayside, Long Island, NY in the Episcopal Church where Mabel had attended Sunday school and been confirmed. After marrying, the couple stayed in NY for a few more months, and then in 1926, they drove out to California in a Model T Ford so that Arnold could resume his work at Caltech.

Arnold Beckman went on to receive his doctorate in photochemistry at the California Institute of Technology in 1928, where he then stayed on as an assistant professor. While he was still teaching, Dr. Beckman invented the acidimeter, which he first produced for a former classmate at a Southern California citrus processing plant. Designed to measure acidity levels in lemon juice, the acidimeter turned out to be a forerunner of the modern electronic pH meter. It quickly became an indispensable tool in analytical chemistry and earned him a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1987, joining other great inventors like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Dr. Beckman once stated, “When you’re faced with the necessity to do something, that’s a stimulus to invention. If (my classmate) hadn’t come in with his lemon juice problem, chances are I never in the world would have thought about making a pH meter.”

In 1933, Dr. and Mrs. Beckman adopted two children, Patricia and Arnold S. Beckman, and he continued to refine the early designs on the acidimeter to improve the reliability of the measurements and ease of use for the scientists. Dr. Beckman began marketing this new instrument in scientific journals and at scientific trade shows, and orders began flowing in. As the business started to demand more of his time, Dr. Beckman left his teaching position to found National Technical Laboratories (later, Beckman Instruments) in 1935, to develop and manufacture scientific instruments. Mrs. Beckman was the support that Dr. Beckman needed to start on this unique and uncharted path. She traveled with him across the country as he started his business enterprises and, later, traveled the globe with him as his business became a world-wide leader in the biotechnology revolution. As Dr. Beckman’s company grew, his team began working on other photochemical instruments, leading to the release of the Beckman DU Spectrophotometer in 1941. Considered the scientific equivalent of Ford’s Model T, this product not only simplified tedious laboratory procedures, it also increased analytical precision and revolutionized chemical analysis. As Beckman Instruments grew in size and influence, the family moved from Pasadena, CA down to the Newport Coast in Orange County, and a new Beckman Instruments headquarters and factory was built in Fullerton, CA.

Dr. Beckman’s love of science and spirit of invention lived on in Beckman Instruments, a company with modest beginnings that became one of the world’s leading manufacturers of instruments and suppliers to the clinical diagnostics and life sciences markets. “The past years have been rewarding for me in many ways,” said Dr. Beckman, during the Golden Anniversary celebration for Beckman Instruments, Inc. “Perhaps the greatest reward is the knowledge that Beckman products have contributed and are contributing to the benefit of mankind.” These extraordinary contributions led to several national awards: the 1988 National Medal of Technology; the 1989 National Medal of Science for his leadership in analytical instrumentation development and for his deep concern for the vitality of the nation’s scientific enterprises; and the 1989 Presidential Citizens Medal for his exemplary deeds of service and for outstanding technological contributions to the United States.

Mabel remained Dr. Beckman’s lifelong confidante and sounding-board. As they began contemplating the formation of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, she was instrumental in developing the mission of the Foundation and the early gifts to establish the Beckman Institutes at Caltech, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, City of Hope, University of California-Irvine, and Stanford University.

Mrs. Beckman passed away after a long struggle with cancer in June 1989. Dr. Beckman died on May 18, 2004 at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, California. He was 104 years old. They are buried next to each other in Arnold’s birthplace in Cullom, Illinois.

 Awards and Recognition

 Throughout his career, Dr. Beckman received numerous awards and recognitions, including the prestigious National Medal of Science, the Presidential Citizens Medal and the National Medal of Technology.

1957    Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Chemists (AIC)
1960    “Illini” Achievement Award, University of Illinois
1966    Business Statesman Award, Harvard Business School of Southern California
1971    Industrialist of the Year Award, California Museum of Science and Industry
1974    Outstanding Achievement in Business Management, Southern California School of Business Administration
1974    SAMA Award, Scientific Apparatus Makers Association
1974    Service Through Chemistry Award, American Chemical Society
1979    Private Enterprise Award, Pepperdine University
1981    Distinguished Community Service Award, Americanism Education League
1981    ISCO Award, University of Nebraska
1982    Man of Science Award, Achievement Rewards for College Scientists; (ARC’s) Foundation
1982    Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement
1983    Rock of Free Enterprise Award, Economic Development Corporation of Orange County
1983    Public Affairs Award, Coro Foundation
1984    Outstanding Philanthropist Award, National Society of Fund Raising Executives
1984    Vision Award, Luminaires (a support group for the Estelle Doheny Eye Foundation of Los Angeles)
1987    Vermilye Medal (the first of the Benjamin Franklin National Medals), the Franklin Institute
1987    National Inventors Hall of Fame, Washington, D.C.
1988    The National Medal of Technology, The President of the United States
1989    The National Medal of Science, The President of the United States
1989    Presidential Citizens Medal, Washington, D.C.
1989    Henry Townley Heald Award, Illinois Institute of Technology
1989    Charles Lathrop Parsons Award, American Chemical Society
1990    High Tech Industry’s Good Scout Award, Orange County Council, Boy Scouts of America
1991    Achievement Award for Excellence, Center for Excellence in Education in Washington, D.C.
1991    The Order of Lincoln, the State of Illinois.
1992    Bower Award for Business Leadership, The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia
1997    Master Entrepreneur of the Year, Ernst & Young, California
1997    Treasure of Los Angeles Award
1998    Excellence in Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame Award, Chapman University, California
1999    Public Welfare Medal, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.

Click here for more information about Dr. Arnold O. Beckman and the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.

  • Education

    B.S., Chemical Engineering, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 1922
    M.S., Physical Chemistry, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 1923
    Ph.D., Photochemistry, California Institute of Technology, 1928