Charles Selwitz, a highly respected research chemist who for a great many years—and on a great many projects—served as a consultant for the Getty Conservation Institute, passed away in July at the age of eighty-seven.
Charles earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1949 and a PhD at the University of Cincinnati in 1953 before embarking on an extensive career in the petroleum industry that included well over one hundred patents issued in his name. At the age of fifty-six he retired, moved to Los Angeles, and ultimately commenced a new career in conservation science.
His association with the Getty began in the early 1980s when he served as a consultant to the Antiquities Department of the Getty Museum. When the GCI was formed in the mid-1980s, Charles was retained as a consultant. During the next few decades, Charles engaged in a wide variety of chemical research projects at GCI that included laboratory studies and field applications of organic consolidants for art objects. One of the first problems he studied was the degradation of cellulose nitrate, an early consolidant for stone and ceramics. His efforts to understand the degradation mechanism of cellulose nitrate resulted in his Cellulose Nitrate in Conservation (1988), a GCI publication that is widely consulted and remains a principal reference in the field. Another polymer that continues to be an important consolidant for conservation is the epoxy-type resin that was developed for industrial use.
Again, Charles's work resulted in his authorship of a GCI book on the chemistry and uses of a wide variety of epoxies—Epoxy Resins in Stone Conservation (1992).
Charles's research on epoxy consolidants grew to include the application of these resins in the field. For many years he was engaged in a GCI study to preserve the remaining adobe buildings at Fort Selden, an early US Army post near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The ruins of these historic adobe buildings—a New Mexico state historic site—were degrading rapidly, and Charles carried out epoxy polymer impregnation studies at the site. The results of these studies were presented at conservation conferences and in GCI reports and papers.
In addition to the epoxy work, Charles was involved in a number of other GCI projects, among them the evaluation of the use of aliphatic isocyanates for adobe conservation, as well as a study on the use of inert gases to control insect pests, which resulted in a book coauthored with GCI scientist Shin Maekawa, Inert Gases in the Control of Museum Insect Pests (1998). He was a consultant on a number of other projects in the field, including evaluation of the degradation and proposed conservation of the Great Sphinx in Egypt and the conservation of the lintels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
In short, Charles's involvement in conservation began as the GCI began, and his role in the Institute's work helped shape the GCI's early scientific legacy. His GCI colleagues remember him fondly not only for his significant professional contributions but also for his personal warmth and many enthusiasms—for hockey, for health, and for bird watching.