Bruce McDuffie, analytical chemistry professor at Binghamton University from 1958 to 1988, died Sept. 12 at his home in Chattanooga, Tennessee after battling dementia for several years.
McDuffie, who was 93, is survived by his wife, Winifred Groover McDuffie; his children John, Susan and Judie; three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
He made headlines in 1970 when he tested a can of tuna from his home and found high levels of methylmercury.
“It was an exciting time and he got a lot of coverage,” said his son, John McDuffie. “Life Magazine actually came to do a feature on him and he went to speak at conferences around the world.”
After the discovery he would often bring his work home with him, according to Susan McDuffie, one of his daughters.
“He’d always be picking up roadkill to test it,” she said. “You’d open the fridge and never know what to expect. I’m sure there was a flying squirrel in there one time.”
According to McDuffie’s wife, his friendly demeanor disguised his strict grading policy.
“He was a tough, tough grader,” Winifred said. “He was nicknamed the ‘smiling assassin’ and also the ‘velvet harpoon’ because he was so good at smiling while giving you a bad grade.”
Winifred said that political activism was important to him during his stay at BU, exemplified when he helped charter a bus for students and faculty to attend the 1963 March on Washington.
“I remember him saying that the participation in the march was one of the most significant things in his life,” she said.
According to Winifred, McDuffie also led demonstrations in the 1970s that saved the Nature Preserve from dorm construction.
“There was talk of bulldozing the area, and Bruce and some students protested vigorously,” she said. “Eventually administration bent to their urgings and gave up.”
According to his son John, McDuffie’s interests varied, but he approached every task with excitement.
“He was very driven and persistent, and had a really good sense of humor,” John said. “I remember late nights growing up, making…puns and everyone trying to top each other.”
McDuffie served several terms as president of the McDuffie Clan Society of America, a society open to everyone with the surname “McDuffie.” His involvement in the society led to an interest in running later in his life.
“At one of the Highland games they needed someone to run the kilted mile,” Susan McDuffie said. “He was 60, but he completed it. And from there he got into triathlons, which he was running into his late 70s.”
His son, though, said the interest in athletics began even earlier.
“I remember going skiing at Greek Peak,” John said. “There was a time that he didn’t have classes on Tuesday and Thursday and he’d take me out of class and we’d go skiing.”
According to his son, McDuffie was always volunteering his time, whether it was tutoring students at local schools, helping register voters or demonstrating to protect the environment.
“He was very concerned about trying to make the world a better place and he always had some cause,” John said. “He was altruistic.”