Preston L. Veltman, 87, chemical engineer, inventor


Preston L. Veltman, a retired chemical engineer and inventor who helped develop the atomic bomb during World War II, died Tuesday of Alzheimer's disease at Chesapeake Future Care in Arnold. He was 87 and lived in Severna Park.

Mr. Veltman, who was director of research and development for W. R. Grace & Co. for 32 years before retiring in 1977, was a plant engineer for Texaco Oil Co. in Port Arthur, Texas, when he was tapped to join the Manhattan Project in 1942.

The top-secret project, based in Los Alamos, N.M., led to the development of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan in 1945.

Mr. Veltman, who worked on the purification of uranium and plutonium for the bomb, also designed a building where plutonium purification was carried out.

"Being asked to join the team was quite an honor," said his wife, the former Barbara Sawtell, whom he married in 1938.

"We couldn't tell people where we were going or what we were doing. Even our mail was censored," Mrs. Veltman said yesterday from her home.

After the war, Mr. Veltman, who was known as Pres, joined Davison Chemical Co. in Curtis Bay in 1945 as director of research and development. He continued with the company after it was acquired by W. R. Grace & Co. in 1954 and later moved to its Clarksville facility.

Known as a man avoided avoided the limelight even as he accomplished much, Mr. Veltman conducted his professional life by the often-expressed philosophy: "Make a study of the doers. Help them knock down the barriers and get the job done."

He worked on a process that yielded higher sugar production with less loss and at a lower cost, and in Peru developed a method that converted anchovies to fish meal. He worked on the reclamation of former coal fields, and the gasification and liquefaction of coal.

A man of broad and diverse interests, Mr. Veltman held or shared more than 200 patents that ranged from medicine to yachts.

"He is the type who sights his targets and goes after them in a fashion that may appear unorthodox to some people. His style is intuitive and characterized by an extreme sense of urgency," said Leonard V. Triggiani, president of W. R. Grace, at Mr. Veltman's retirement.

"I have been continuously surprised by the catholic scope of your interests, your insatiable curiosity, scientific as well as intellectual, and the pure joy you derive from inventions and ideas," wrote Thomas Gibian, a longtime friend.

In the early 1950s, he and Dr. Irving Ochs, an Annapolis ear, nose and throat specialist, developed an ointment that was used to treat burns and ulcerations. The base of the product, acetic acid, was vinegar, which ancient Assyrians used as a medicine.

A generous mentor, Mr. Veltman worked with young engineers, refining their inventions and helping them secure patents.

A yachtsman, he sailed the Chesapeake Bay for 50 years, first aboard a 58-foot cutter, the Tequahmenon, and later a Morgan 34, the N. B.

He also designed marine hardware and navigational aids, and for many years was a member of the board of directors of Pearson Yachts in Rhode Island, which he helped develop molds for fiberglass boats.

Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., Mr. Veltman earned his bachelor's degree in mining and metallurgy and his master's degree in chemical engineering from the Michigan College of Mining and Technology in Holton, Mich. He earned his doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1938.

He began his career with Texaco in the research department in Beacon, N.Y., in 1938.

"He was an incredibly brilliant man who wasn't a joiner. He came home at night. His family was first and his work second," said Mrs. Veltman, who said her husband enjoyed working in his home laboratory.

He also was an avid square dancer.

Services are private.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Veltman is survived by a son, Dr. John Preston Veltman of Stevensville; a daughter, Julia Ann Parry of Denver; and four grandchildren.

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