In Memoriam: Julianne Prager, Ph.D.
Julianne “Julie” Heller Prager, Ph.D., died on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, at the age of 94. Dr. Prager and her late-husband Stephen “Steve” were long-time supporters of the Department of Chemistry. Steve was a professor of physical chemistry in the Department of Chemistry for more than 40 years (1952-1990). He died in January 2016.
Julie graduated from Brown University, and earned her doctorate in organic chemistry from Cornell University, where she met Steve. They were married for 67 years. In 1957, she began her career at 3M, where she worked for more than 27 years as a polymer and fluoroxy chemist, ending her career serving as executive director of 3M’s Corporate Technical Planning and Coordination. She was in charge of leading the assessment and evaluation of all of 3M’s research laboratories. At the time of her retirement, she was the senior ranking woman at 3M.
Julie was a pioneering scientist, a strong advocate for women in the sciences, a mentor and guide for women at 3M, and an active participant in the activities of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Chemical Society.
Joy Stilley, AP news feature writer, wrote a story about Julie that was published in a number of newspapers in 1972. In that article, Julie notes: “. . . one message I’d like to give young girls is not to lower their sights because they’re female.” She set her own sights high and worked hard to achieve them. At the time the article was written, she was supervising an all-male group of nine scientists at 3M who were conducting research on new technologies and systems for the life sciences.
As scientists, Julie and Steve often had shoptalk discussions. Julie told Stilley: “I ask him questions and he provides help. One the other hand, he’s a professor and sometimes more theoretical than practical. I bring the real world to him, saying this is they way they do it in industry.”
Their long-time friend Professor Peter Carr said: “Julie and Steve were exemplars of ‘opposites attract.’ Socially, Julie was quite upbeat and extroverted; whereas, Steve projected a more somber and introverted persona.”
At 3M, Julie believed in the company’s emphasis on team building and technology sharing. In 1971, she was the first female elected to chair 3M’s Technical Forum, which at that time was a 3,300 member professional organization of 3M scientists who came together to share ideas. Today, the forum has more than 11,000 members, spanning 3M’s 46 plus technology platforms. According to an article, “Creating a culture of collaborative innovation,” written by Andrea Stricker, Ph.D., 3M customer inspired innovation leader, Julie’s campaign slogan was, ‘”Impulsus a posteriori,” which translates as giving the organization “an intellectual kick in the pants.”
The Tech Forum actively engaged in a variety of outreach, including, starting, in the 1980s, the Visiting Technical Women Program in Saint Paul area schools, developing a Teachers Working In Science and Technology, which introduced teachers to science and industry through summer internships, and mentoring high school students through its Science Training Encouragement program, an education and work experience opportunity for high school students.
In addition to outreach, Julie helped foster a program at 3M, called the Genesis Project, which rewarded innovation. “We’re are telling people who work here that all the positive changes in 3M’s future weren’t going to come from management,” she said in “A Century of Innovation: The 3M Story.” “We told them that they are the innovators.
When Julie became executive director of Corporate Technical Planning and Planning, she continued 3M’s tradition of technical audits, an invaluable source of peer-review feedback on research and development projects and what was working or not working. For Julie, the tech audits helped to institutionalize the ethic of sharing.
“The idea has been to provide internal appraisals of major [research and development] programs in the company’s many labs,” Julie said in “A Century of Innovation . . .. “The audit team looks at program strengths, weaknesses and probabilities of success—both technical and business . . .. From the start, the goal was to be positive. The audit team focuses on what was good about a project and areas that needed improvement.”
Julie was also quite active in the Minnesota Chapter of the American Chemical Society (MN ACS), honored with at Minnesota Award in 1986, honored for her outstanding contributions to chemical research and to her profession.
Professor Emeritus Wayland E. Noland remembers Julie with a great deal of fondness. They served together on the Executive Committee of the Minnesota Section of the American Chemical Society for a long time. "I got to know Julie as a chemist with the ACS Local Section where she and I were very active," said Professor Noland. "She was very friendly and I well remember her as a gracious hostess at their house near the shore of Lake Josephine. She was extremely helpful and friendly wherever she could be and was a well-deserved leader in her work at 3M and in local corporate and national activities of the ACS. The deaths of her husband Steve, and now Julie, have left major voids in chemistry at the ACS, 3M, and the Chemistry Department at the University of Minnesota. They will be long remembered!"
Throughout the years, Julie and Steve were deeply committed, strongly, dedicated and extraordinarily generous supporters of the Department of Chemistry. They established the Chemistry Faculty Support Fund through their donations and over the years, they included the chemistry department in their estate plans to establish two endowed chairs in macromolecular chemistry at the University of Minnesota.
After Steve passed away, Julie established the Professor Stephen and Dr. Julianne Prager Chemistry Fund to support the Department of Chemistry’s priorities and strategic initiatives. She also donated a large number of Steve’s books to the Department of Chemistry after his death.