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Professor William J. “Bill” Chancellor in 2005 (UC Davis photo)
Chancellor had already been notified that he would receive the UC Davis Medal at the time of his death in February 2017 at the age of 85, and was immensely honored to have been selected for this distinction. Over almost 60 years at UC Davis, Chancellor was internationally known as a pioneer in studying energy use and information technology in agriculture, working both in California and around the world. He had a special interest in how small farms adapt to mechanization.

In a 2005 profile marking his election to the National Academy of Engineering, he described himself using a Thai proverb for good luck as “like the mouse who fell in the rice bin.”

“I came to UC Davis straight from school, I was supplied with help and guidance and got free rein to do anything I felt useful. I’ve just been having fun going in different directions,” he said.

Chancellor grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm in the 1940s, where energy meant the muscle power of people and horses.

“The human effort seemed to be an unreasonable burden on farmers, and I felt that reducing this burden might be an interesting field for me to get into,” he said in 2005.

Chancellor earned his bachelor’s degree in agriculture and engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then a master’s and doctoral degree from Cornell University.

In 1957, Roy Bainer recruited him straight from Cornell to UC Davis to work on soil compaction due to heavy agricultural machinery.

He took a sabbatical in Thailand in 1960, where he married his wife, Nongkarn. The couple had met during his time at Cornell. Chancellor also visited the Philippines and Malaysia in the early 1960s, beginning a career-long involvement with agriculture in the rapidly developing nations of Southeast Asia.  

Chancellor’s contributions include: soil science and dynamics, his original work at UC Davis, continued throughout his career; international agricultural development, especially the impacts of mechanization and introduction of sustainable food production; and the use of energy and information in agriculture.

He led a landmark study of energy use in California agriculture, and co-authored an influential 1976 study on the global need for energy in food production. Energy is a key element in farming, he noted in 2005: powering machinery, pumping water, making fertilizer, moving goods to market. Crops such as cereals and potatoes generate more energy (in food calories) than you have to put in to grow them, but meat and livestock are very energy intensive. 

Long before most people were thinking about the “information age,” Chancellor saw the importance of information in farming. Concepts he put forward in 1981 are now being adopted in “precision farming” and industry. Pre-internet, he created the first comprehensive electronic database of scientific articles on agricultural engineering, making it available to researchers worldwide. 

Chancellor was also well known for a deep concern for the needs and welfare of his students both on campus and as they advanced their careers around the world. He was always ready to share his experience, insight and wisdom.

“The impressions Bill made on the lives and careers of his many students are profound, as are the many contributions he leaves behind for those who study here. We cannot thank him enough,” said Hexter.

A memorial symposium in Chancellor’s honor will be held July 21 at the UC Davis Conference Center.