Professor Britton Chance

The late Britton Chance was known for his boundless energy and broad range of interests, including his life-long dedication to biophysics, biochemistry and sailing.

Britton Chance

University Archives

Britton Chance

Chance, the former chair of Penn’s Department of Biophysics and Physical Biochemistry, had the rare honor of being elected to some of the most prestigious science societies in the world, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, The Royal Society of London and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Also, President Gerald Ford presented Chance with a National Medal of Science award in 1974.

Chance’s groundbreaking research led to the creation of a device called a spectrometer that improves the sensitivity of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The accompanying photo shows Chance in 1970 in front of the spectrometer.

Chance excelled in athletics, as well. In the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, he won the gold medal in sailing in the Men’s 5 1/2 Meter Class. Chance’s sailboat, the Complex II, was named after an elusive compound in an enzyme reaction.

In his 80s and early 90s, decades after he became an emeritus professor, Chance continued conducting research. He could be seen on campus, riding his bicycle to his laboratory. In 2001, when he was 88 years old, he and collaborators at Penn and Harvard developed a technique to detect malignant cells in the breast. In recent years, he was working on developing a portable system for brain function imaging and monitoring.

In February of 2010, at age 97, Chance married renowned Japanese professor Shoko Nioka, a longtime research associate in biochemistry and biophysics. The wedding, held in the Taiwanese city of Tainan, where both were visiting professors at National Cheng Kung University, was an elaborate, traditional Chinese ceremony, with the groom and the bride dressed in ceremonial costumes. 

For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at

Originally published on February 17, 2011