James Wei and the Legacy of Diversity

In May, AIChE is marking Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by saluting a few chemical engineers of Asian heritage who have made a profound impact on chemical engineering and on AIChE as a home for all members of the profession.

As AIChE reflects on the contributions of the countless distinguished engineers of Asian origin, we are reminded that the road to acceptance, equitable participation, and personal influence has not always been a smooth one for minority engineers in the U.S.

About James Wei

One of those influential people — and among the Institute’s most prominent leaders of the past half-century — is James Wei, born in China in 1930. 

Wei is Professor Emeritus and Dean Emeritus of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University. After earning chemical engineering degrees from Georgia Tech (BS) and MIT (MS and PhD), Wei went on to do pioneering research in industrial catalysis and reaction engineering. Beginning his career at Mobil Oil Research, he moved to academia, first at the University of Delaware in 1971 and then at MIT in 1977. He later joined Princeton in 1991. 

His publications cover topics ranging from chemical kinetics to catalysis and reaction engineering to cancer chemotherapy, and he is the author of many books, including Product Engineering (Oxford University Press, 2007) and Great Inventions that Changed the World (Wiley, 2012).

As an AIChE Fellow and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Wei received many of AIChE’s highest honors, including the Founders Award, the William H. Walker Award for Contributions to Chemical Engineering Literature, the Warren K. Lewis Award for Chemical Engineering Education, and the Professional Progress Award.


Elected as an AIChE director in 1970, Wei went on to become AIChE’s first Asian American president in 1988. During his years as an AIChE leader, Wei drew upon his experiences as an immigrant, and he would become a key advocate for the establishment of AIChE’s Minority Affairs Committee (MAC), helping to advance inclusiveness in the Institute.

Overcoming obstacles

In a reminiscence written in connection with MAC’s 25th anniversary in 2015, Wei recounted challenges that he faced as a new immigrant to the U.S., and the gradual awakening of his impulse to work for change. Following are excerpts from Wei’s article.

In the fall of 1949, I was traveling from China to Georgia Tech as a freshman, and arrived at the Atlanta train station. I found four toilet doors marked: “White Male,” “White Female,” “Colored Male,” and “Colored Female.” Going into the wrong door would risk rebuke and punishment. I thought, clearly I am not female, but am I ‘white’ or ‘colored?’ Georgia Tech was at that time all male and almost all white, so if Georgia Tech admitted me, I might pass for white. But on the other hand, I am of the ‘yellow’ race, and that is a color. It is a no-no for a man to enter a women’s toilet, but what is wrong with a yellow person in a colored toilet? (I thought), maybe it would be safer to wait until I get to Georgia Tech, and ask someone who knows.

I had heard the expression that “This guy does not have a ‘Chinaman’s’ chance,” which means that he has no chance at all. After I graduated from Georgia Tech and MIT, I was unable to go home to Shanghai, and counted myself lucky to get a job at Mobil Oil. I was just trying to stay out of trouble, and was not interested in fighting injustice. As a minority immigrant, I had very little expectations in life, and wanted only to make a decent living for my growing family. How does one get ahead when the cards are stacked against you? (Thankfully), I had a number of remarkable mentors who opened doors for me, and told me “you can do it.”

(In the 1960s), Martin Luther King declared “I have a dream.” America began to change, and it also became more acceptable to give a ‘Chinaman’ a chance.

I was elected a member of AIChE’s Council [now the Board of Directors] for 1970–1972, and I participated in the “Establishment,” and in making things better. I became Head of the Chemical Engineering Department at MIT in 1978. I was getting used to pretending that I was as good as anyone else. Now I had the position and connections to change things and situations, and decided I should become a mentor and to help others who had been held back. 

Minority Affairs Committee (MAC)

Wei went on to describe how, in the 1960s and 1970s, AIChE members Henry Brown and Gerald Lessells began finding ways to serve underrepresented engineers. Acceptance of a Minority Affairs Committee as part of AIChE was a slow campaign.

“When I was elected AIChE Vice President in 1987, minority affairs received a mixed reaction from the leadership. Some thought that it was about time to support minorities in finding a place in the sun; other thought that things were good enough the way they were, and that we must not spend general AIChE funds for minority affairs.”

Wei explained that Henry Brown and his group began to investigate what other engineering societies did to fund such programs. AIChE would settle on the idea of a voluntary dues bill check-off that member who supported minority affairs could use to contribute an extra sum of money along with their AIChE membership dues. 

Shortly thereafter, Wei continued, “I became President in 1988, the year that Council approved the formation of the Minority Affairs Committee. Life was pretty lonely for MAC at the beginning. Henry Brown told me that I was the first President of the AIChE to attend a meeting of the NOBCChE (National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers), and to show support. But soon, a relay team of outstanding leaders came in to lead MAC, and good things happened.” 

Today, MAC is accepted as mainstream AIChE — and who can doubt the contributions of minorities to the field of chemical engineering?

Learn more about the Minority Affairs Committee and join MAC today.

Join or renew your AIChE membership today.