KU's Fertile Environment Leads to Discovery

Former postdoc aims to inspire next generation

In 1966, Felix Theeuwes and his wife, Marie-Therese, sold all of their belongings for a one-way ticket from Leuven, Belgium, to Kansas City. The couple traveled to Lawrence with their three young children so Felix could work as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Kansas. 

Felix earned his doctorate in physics at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and could have remained there, but he said the adventure to go to Kansas was too attractive to pass up. 

Years later, the Theeuwes family still feels a strong connection to KU. The couple was inspired by their experiences on campus to create the Felix and Marie-Therese Theeuwes Postdoctoral Fellowship with a gift of $1.5 million. The fund will support postdoctoral fellows in chemistry, physics, biology or pharmaceutical chemistry to come from Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium to KU for two years. The Theeuwes Fellowship is the largest one of its kind at the university. The fund’s intent is to encourage culture exchange and to spark scientific discovery and innovation, just as Felix’s fellowship did 50 years ago.

“I’m grateful to Felix and Marie-Therese Theeuwes for funding this postdoctoral fellowship. It’s a win-win for KU and for the students. KU will benefit from bringing top-notch scholars from Belgium to engage in scientific research with our faculty. The students will benefit from the guidance and knowledge of our esteemed faculty members,” said Chancellor Douglas A. Girod.

Felix came to KU to join professor Richard Bearman’s lab to research the thermodynamic properties of the noble gases krypton and xenon in liquid form. A National Science Foundation grant funded the necessary pressure, volume and temperature equipment, which they built from scratch in Malott Hall. According to Felix, equilibrium thermodynamics requires patience because capturing the data is a slow process that needs careful attention. 

“For safety purposes, the equipment included sensors for pressure, temperature and vacuum insulation,” Felix said. “This monitoring was needed at all times to prevent potential explosive consequences. If the sensors reached a set threshold, an alarm would buzz at home under our bed. Now and then, Marie-Therese and I would drive up to the lab in the middle of the night to fix a problem.” 

Professor Joy K. Ward, associate dean of science research, expressed that the Theeuwes Postdoctoral Fellowship will be important for enhancing collaborations between scientists at KU and in Belgium through this extraordinary gift. “Felix and Marie-Therese have a strong understanding of the commitment and hard work that are required for a successful career in the sciences,” Ward said. “Their contributions to medicine and pharmacy are a source of pride for the university. Through their endowed fellowship, numerous early-career scientists will have the opportunity to thrive at KU while advancing science in ways that will benefit society for many years to come. We are so very grateful for their generosity and support of KU.”

Those years in the lab were productive; they gathered extensive data and published eight papers. In 1970, the project was coming to an end and Felix was looking for a job. Bearman connected him with Takeru (Tak) Higuchi, KU distinguished professor and ALZA Corporation vice president of research, which had a laboratory across the street at KU’s West Campus.

“I told Tak that I knew nothing about drugs and I kept refusing my only job offer, but he insisted that thermodynamics was all that mattered,” Felix said. “His idea was that he needed scientists from different disciplines to develop the new field of controlled drug delivery. Even though I worked with Tak for only one year, we coauthored two papers and forged the beginnings of the commercial osmotic systems patents and business.”  

From these early stages, Felix launched a successful career in pharmaceutical development. He worked at ALZA Corporation for nearly 30 years and then co-founded DURECT Corporation in 1998. He holds 245 U.S. patents for his inventions, has published some 80 articles and book chapters, and is a fellow of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists.

“I am forever thankful to Professor Richard Bearman, Professor Takeru Higuchi and the University of Kansas for creating this fertile environment where academia and industry bonded to give rise to the creation of new technologies, medicines and also prosperity for a large number of families,” Felix said.


Read Felix Theeuwes’ personal recollection of his experiences at KU.