The Famous Chemist Who Called Potlatch Home
Born in Spokane to Earl and Elsie MacKenzie Renfrew on October 12, 1910, Malcolm Renfrew was not only a renowned chemist credited as being part of the team that developed Teflon, but he was one of Potlatch’s proudest and dearest citizens.
Malcolm came to Potlatch on the train with his mother and brother Edgar after his father had taken a job with the Potlatch Mercantile. Malcolm was 12, his brother five years younger. The two boys immediately found their place in the Company Town and particularly loved the fact that Potlatch had a library (They’d previously lived in Colfax, which in those days had no library).
The family did well in Potlatch, with Earl Renfrew serving on the school board and staying involved in community activities. The boys had a dog named Fox, who was their constant companion, and both Malcolm and Edgar excelled in school. Once Malcolm mastered playing the trombone, he played a number of venues around the area, including Riverside and the Kennedy Ford Grange. Malcolm graduated from Potlatch High School in 1928, and immediately enrolled at the University of Idaho, following the wishes of his parents, who placed a high premium on getting an education. He earned a BS and MS in Chemistry, then went on to earn a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1938. He also married Carol Campbell from Rosalia the same year, and the couple moved to New Jersey where Malcolm worked for DuPont. It was at DuPont that Malcolm and a team of scientists developed Teflon, a product that went on to be familiar to most Americans as the main component in non-stick frying pans (the substance is far more important in medical devices and even space technology). Malcolm happened to be the scientist who unveiled Teflon at a conference, so he is often credited with being the inventor. Yet he waved off the distinction, always setting the record straight.
When Malcolm and Carol realized their dream of returning to the Palouse, it was for Malcolm to accept a slot as a professor at the University of Idaho. He served at the U of I from 1959 to 1976. In addition to his Professorial duties, he played trombone with the Hog Heaven Big Band and the non-marching Vandal Boosters Pep Band. He was a member of the Palouse Watercolor Socius, in his spare time as well.
Carol passed away in 2010, and Malcolm passed away on his 103rd birthday, October 12, 2013. It is noteworthy that Malcolm’s brother Edgar was also an accomplished scientist, earning his BS and MS in Chemistry from the University of Idaho, and a PhD from the University of Minnesota. Both men always pointed out that their childhood in Potlatch was very formative in their career success, with Potlatch schools ranking as some of the best in the region due to the Potlatch Lumber Company’s focus on hiring good teachers at a higher than average wage.
Malcolm gave a large amount of money to build our library. He donated his fathers books to the library and loved to come and see them on our shelves. He will be greatly missed.
Malcolm was generous to many Potlatch causes, such as the WI&M Railway Depot and the Potlatch Historical Society. He was always such fun to visit with.
In many ways Malcolm Renfrew made his mark on many people throughout his lifetime. Unbeknownst to him, one of his commencement addresses at graduation left lasting impressions on many a student and gave the impetus to pursue the study of science.
One of his favorite jokes was, “If nothing ever sticks to Teflon, how do they make Teflon stick to the pan?”
A true friend of Potlatch, a true friend indeed, Malcolm Renfrew (October 12, 1910 – October 12, 2013).