Johanna (Anneke) M.H. Levelt Sengers

ana bio

Anneke was born in Amsterdam on March 4, 1929, as the eldest of 10 children. There was a strong scientific atmosphere in the family. Her father, Willem Levelt, had a Ph.D. in Chemistry and her mother, Josephine Berger, had a masters degree in physics, both from the University of Amsterdam. Nevertheless, her father had a tendency to consider science as specially suited for men. This did not discourage Anneke, but rather strengthened her desire to become a respectable scientist.

Shortly before WW II, the family moved from an apartment in Amsterdam to a house in Heemstede, a town close to Haarlem. This move turned out to be a blessing during WW II. Nevertheless, the family had to deal with some major challenges: one daughter with polio, a son with tuberculosis. At some point, her father was taken away by German soldiers and put in a concentration camp (Buchenwald) as a hostage. Fortunately, when Anneke’s mother faced a somewhat difficult pregnancy, her German obstetrician was able to get her father released from Buchenwald.

After Anneke completed high school (Lyceum) in 1947, some relatives suggested she stay home to help her mother with the large family. But her parents allowed her to go to the University of Amsterdam, initially as a commuter student. She was supported by a modest government loan and later earned her way as a physics teacher in the same high school from which she had graduated.

At the University of Amsterdam, she received an undergraduate education in physics and chemistry and a graduate education in physics. In 1958 she completed her Ph.D. under the guidance of Professor A.M.J.F. Michels, founder of the Van der Waals laboratory at the University of Amsterdam and of the Institute for Molecular Physics at the University of Maryland in College Park, USA. Her Ph.D. was based on an experimental study of the compressibility of argon in the gaseous and liquid phase. Subsequently, she was a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute for Theoretical Chemistry of the celebrated Professor Joseph Hirschfelder at the University of Wisconsin. During her stay at the University of Wisconsin, she became enthralled with the dynamic research climate in the United States. In 1959 she returned as a research scientist to the Van der Waals Laboratory, but did not forget her previous exciting experience as a postdoctoral associate in the US.

Her future husband, Jan V. Sengers, was a fellow graduate student at the Van der Waals Laboratory of the University of Amsterdam. After Jan had received his Ph.D. in 1962, he proposed to Anneke and they got married in 1963. They applied for positions at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS). Since at that time it was difficult for married women to pursue a scholarly career in The Netherlands, they decided to emigrate to the United States, where they both became scientists at NBS in what was at that time called the Heat Division. After some years, Jan joined the University of Maryland, but Anneke pursued her entire professional career at the National Bureau Standards, that subsequently became the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

As a research physicist, Anneke and her collaborators worked on critical phenomena in fluids and fluids mixtures, from theory to experiment and databases for practical applications. They developed critical-region scaling concepts for the thermodynamic properties of fluids and fluid mixtures. They performed measurements of density, phase behavior and other properties of a variety of industrially important fluids. They also worked on databases for the properties of water and steam for applications in science and in the electric power industry. Several of these became standards adopted by the International Association for the Properties of Water and Steam (IAPWS) and were incorporated in the ASME Steam Tables. Anneke has served for 14 years as the US Representative for IAPWS and has been President of IAPWS in 1991-1992. Anneke has also been active in the history of her field in thermodynamics, culminating in a book entitled How Fluids Unmix (Edita KNAW, 2002).

Together with her husband Jan, Anneke received an honorary degree of the Technical University Delft (TUD) in 1992, thus becoming the first female Honorary Doctor in the history of the TUD. Anneke has been elected to the US National Academy of Engineering (1992) and the US National Academy of Sciences (1996) and is a correspondent of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (1990). Among her other honors are NIST and US Department of Commerce Awards, the US Interagency Committee for Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Award (1985), and the Yeram S. Touloukian Award of the ASME (2006).

In 2003 Anneke received the L’Oreal-UNESCO Prize for women in science in North America. It was the first time this prize was awarded for women in the physical sciences. This award caused a profound change in Anneke’s career by turning her attention to the issue of women in science. Specifically, she was asked by the InterAcademy Council (IAC) to co-chair an international panel on women in science together with Manju Sharma of India. They decided to examine not just women’s place in society, but also their status in the 90 national academies represented by IAC. The resulting IAC report Women for Science (IAC, 2006) offered a candid assessment of the problems facing women trying to enter and move up in the world of science and engineering. IAC decided to implement the recommendations of this report regionally and Anneke was asked to lead a Working Group on Women in Science of the InterAmerican Network of Academies of Sciences (IANAS). One of the results of the numerous activities of this Working Group is a bilingual book Women Scientists in the AmericasMujeres Cientificas en las Americas (IANAS, 2013), containing inspiring stories from female scientists in North, Middle and South America. Anneke terminated her activities for IANAS in 2016.

Anneke is not only a prominent scientist but is also a dedicated spouse of Jan, a beloved mother of four children, and a beloved grandmother of five children. She loves being in nature and is constantly watching clouds in the sky, rising sun and moon, and is fascinated by colorful sunsets.

Jan V. Sengers, University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

Additional literature:

Jakob de Swaan Arons and Cor J. Peters, J. Supercritical Fluids 9, iii (1996).

Jeffrey Mervis, Science, AAAS 312, 1859 (2006).

H.G. Semerjian, NIST-The Crown Jewel- of the Federal S & T Enterprise (U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, 2019), Ch. 24, Epilogue.