In Memoriam: Dr. Donald E. Sands

Dr. Donald E. Sands, professor and administrator at the University of Kentucky for 37 years, died Sept. 22, 2021, at the age of 92. During his final months he amused himself, as he had all his life, by solving different types of difficult puzzles. Recently he had told people close to him that he had had a very good life.

Dr. Sands was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1929 and did his undergraduate work at nearby Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He then went on to Cornell University, where he completed a Ph.D. in 1955 after having worked in chemical crystallography under the direction of J. Lynn Hoard. One of his papers with Hoard, “The Structure of Tetragonal Boron,” became a classic; a few months later, Linus Pauling wrote to Hoard saying:

I have just been reading, for the second time, your paper on tetragonal boron and I am writing primarily to tell you my opinion of it. I think that it is one of the best crystal-structure determinations that has ever been made. Also, I am pleased with the excellent writing in this paper.  Too often scientific papers are written in a discouragingly dull way.

While at Cornell, Dr. Sands met his future wife, Betty Stoll, to whom he was very happily married for 62 years until she died in 2018. 

Dr. Sands’ first professional position was as a senior chemist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California. After having worked on the structures of boron allotropes in graduate school, he studied inorganic borides and beryllides at the California lab. While his work was primarily scientific and led to many publications, the Lawrence lab at that time had strong interests in nuclear-weapons research. That emphasis eventually led Dr. Sands to look for a position elsewhere.

Dr. Sands joined the University of Kentucky as an assistant professor in 1962; he was a full professor by 1968. In Lexington, he did not at first have access to the kind of equipment he had used previously but he collaborated with Paul Sears and Bill Wagner. Eventually he built a working lab as well as a steady stream of publications and students. One of his early papers, on the structure of the disordered monoclinic polymorph of sulfur (1965), is well known still because the solid-state orthorhombic-monoclinic phase transition of sulfur is often discussed in undergraduate physical chemistry courses.

Among his colleagues in the Chemistry Department, Dr. Sands became known as the guru of physical chemistry. He worked the problems in textbooks for relaxation and could (unlike the rest of us) solve them all – and make doing so look simple. His students admired him for his orderly lectures and fair exams, his dry wit, and his concern for their welfare.

Dr. Sands’ interest in teaching led to a successful book, Introduction to Crystallography (1969; 1993; Spanish edition in 1974).

Dr. Sands also enjoyed, and was very good at, more formal mathematics. His first paper in that area, “Transformations of Variance-Covariance Tensors,” was published in 1966; eventually he wrote a book (The Vectors and Tensors of Crystallography, 1982) that became a classic. Reprinted in 1995, it is now available as a free pdf download. He also wrote an article (“Distances, Angles, and their Standard Uncertainties”) for The International Tables for Crystallography (1993 through the current 2010 edition).

Over the years, Dr. Sands served as department chair, associate dean, acting dean, and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. He spent two years at the National Science Foundation as Section Head of the Division of Teacher Preparation and Enhancement.

Dr. Sands retired formally in 1999 and so had more time to play chess, to enjoy museums and the arts and to spend time with his three beloved granddaughters. But he also remained active in a variety of projects. One of the most notable was teaching physical chemistry to a young inmate of the federal prison in Lexington. That student eventually completed his sentence and went on to graduate from the University of Kentucky as a chemistry major and to do well in a graduate program elsewhere. Dr. Sands also took on more formal roles, such as acting director of the University of Kentucky Art Museum in 2001 and board member and then chair (1999) of the Central Kentucky Civil Liberties Union (ACLU – KY).  The latter group honored him with its Thomas L. Hogan Award in November 2015. 

Don and Betty’s two children are both graduates of the University of Kentucky. Many of his colleagues enjoyed teaching Carolyn, a chemistry major. Stephen studied civil engineering.

Dr. Sands was a central, if quiet, presence at the University of Kentucky and around Lexington for nearly 60 years. His influence has been perhaps mostly strongly felt in how things are done, or at least how we think they ought to be done. He could take strong, principled positions (as dean he was known to ask professors who had cancelled class when they were going to make up the time students had paid for), but he always listened and always considered all the circumstances. Back in the years when forms of discrimination were acceptable to many, they were never acceptable to him. Kindness was his guiding principle.

Donations in memory of Dr. Sands can be made to the Dr. Donald E. Sands Chemistry Graduate Scholarship Fund. Checks should be made payable to the University of Kentucky with the fund name written in the memo field and mailed to: UK Philanthropy, PO Box 23552, Lexington, KY 40523. Online gifts can be made on the University of Kentucky’s giving site, click here. Type the “Dr. Donald E. Sands Chemistry Graduate Scholarship Fund” into the search tool at the top of the page and click the magnifying glass icon. Next, click the “Donate to Dr. Donald E. Sands Chemistry Graduate Scholarship Fund” button to complete your gift.