A molecular biology researcher and a high school science teacher, Barbara Benfield loved her work in the lab and the classroom, and she was reluctant to reveal her age because she wanted to pursue her professions as long as possible, said her husband, Peter.
She had hoped to never retire, her family said, and only cut back in her late 60s because her husband wanted to spend more time traveling.
“She would have worked until the day she died,” said her son, David of Boston, “but my father wanted to go off on his adventures, and he couldn’t do it by himself.”
Mrs. Benfield, who formerly was a researcher in laboratories at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, died of an infection April 10 in Massachusetts General Hospital. She was 81 and lived in Needham.
“She was always rigorous about her thinking about any kind of problem,” said Phillips Robbins, in whose laboratories Mrs. Benfield worked for many years. “She was very outgoing, and she was interested in people. She combined this interest in people and teaching with a real interest in science.”
Mrs. Benfield worked on and off in his laboratories, first at MIT and later for a brief time at Boston University.
In the 1950s, Mrs. Benfield started her career as a researcher at Harvard with H. Edwin Umbarger and published papers with him before being hired at MIT, Robbins said.
She helped Robbins establish his lab at MIT. He said she served as his chief technician, overseeing groups of 10 to 12 graduate and postdoctoral students at a time while they researched carbohydrate molecules on the surface of cells.
“When my grandson came to work with us over a summer, he wasn’t familiar with what we were doing or even the kind of work we were doing,” said Robbins. “She went back to the beginning and showed him everything about how it worked.”
Robbins said Mrs. Benfield played a large part in several publications and she would have been a great doctor, because of her caring nature and deep knowledge of science.
During her career, Mrs. Benfield took several years off to raise her children. While doing so, she also returned to college and graduated with a master’s degree from what is now Framingham State University. As her children grew older, she returned to MIT.
“She was thrilled to go back to the lab and re-educate herself and work on cutting-edge research,” her son said.
He added that she was a “fiercely independent and stubborn woman and never wanted to show any weakness.”
Mrs. Benfield also was a science teacher at Mount St. Joseph Academy, a Catholic high school for girls in Brighton.
“She was a marvelous teacher,” Robbins said. “She was really very good at teaching and working with people.”
One of two daughters born to Harry Brown and the former Ida Gail Finkelstein, both Russian immigrants, Barbara Brown grew up in Brookline.
Her husband said she knew from an early age that if she and her sister were going to get anywhere, “it was always going to be on their energy and their smarts. It’s not going to come from their family to get ahead.”
Mrs. Benfield graduated from Brookline High School and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
She met Peter Benfield when both were attending at a concert in Symphony Hall in 1961. He said she caught his interest with her self-confidence and tremendous energy.
Although he had graduated from Yale University, she told him he had to “make something of himself” before she would agree to marry, he recalled, and gave him the option of studying medicine or law. He chose the latter and became a lawyer with the John Hancock insurance company.
Mrs. Benfield liked to read mysteries and play tennis and swim, said her son, who added that his mother had “a strong wit and would deliver her message with humor.”
She was a longtime member of the Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline, the Badminton & Tennis Club of Boston, and the University Club of Boston.
In December, Mrs. Benfield realized a longtime plan to spend two weeks in Hawaii with her extended family, a group that totaled 13.
A service has been held for Mrs. Benfield, who in addition to her husband and son leaves two daughters, Susan of St. Paul and Heather of Los Angeles; a sister, Muriel Myerson of Wellesley; and five grandchildren.
In 2001, Mrs. Benfield’s husband was offered an opportunity through the Fulbright program to teach in Kyrgyzstan, which formerly was part of the Soviet Union. Mrs. Benfield went with him and taught English as a second language.
The couple also enjoyed traveling to Egypt, Israel, Greece, Costa Rica, and other destinations.
“She was as interested in people and as interested in teaching as she was in science,” Robbins said.