An Anecdotal History of Chemistry Prior to 1950

by Elizabeth P. Rogers (1919-2020)

Prof. Rogers was an instructor for General Chemistry from 1963 to 1988. She received her doctorate from Northwestern University in 1951. Before receiving her PhD, she worked as a research chemist for the Armstrong Cork Company, worked in France for the American Red Cross and was a chemistry instructor at Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois. During Dr. Rogers time at the U of I, she authored three chemistry textbooks individually and one in collaboration with W. H. Brown. The talk below was given at the ACS Midwest Chemistry Meeting, Evanston, IL in 1976.

My good sense must have been somewhere else when I agreed to give today in thirty minutes an anecdotal history of chemistry at the University of Illinois. The department has been staffed from the beginning with the sort of men about whom anecdotes are told. Gathering such anecdotes has been my chief conversational ploy this spring. I have talked to those who were here as students during the first half of this century, to those who were members of the department during this time, those who knew of the activities of the department and to those Illinois grads who were available. This paper represents a sifting of all I heard.

Chemistry was listed as a course of study when the University of Illinois opened in 1868. The first chemistry professor was A. P. Stuart who came from Harvard, bringing with him the new concept of "hand-on" laboratory work which has continued to be so much of the tradition at Illinois. A student lab was set up in the basement of University Hall where a kitchen stove had been installed to provide heat. Water was obtained from the college pump outside. Two summers later Stuart went to Germany to purchase additional equipment for the lab, bringing back two balances of the short beam type known for rapidity and accuracy, a 1000 g platinum retort for making hydrogen fluoride (cost $200) and other equipment. The retort was exchanged in 1903 for $800 worth of platinum dishes. Stuart eventually left the University because he could not get enough laboratory space for the student labs.

In 1877 a science building costing $40,000 was built — four stories high, and a truly handsome late 19th century building. Twenty years later this building, Harker Hall, still new by university standards was stuck by lightning and seriously damaged. It was not so much that fire destroyed the building but the fire weakened the supports for the fourth floor on which was the huge water tank which provided pressurized water for the whole building. Too heavy for the weakened supports, the tank fell through to the basement wrecking among other things two store rooms and the department office. The building was restored but without the mansard roof which had made the original outside design so attractive. It still stands, the oldest but without its manard roof probably the ugliest building on campus. It is inside a model of poor planning. The original entrances to the north, whence no one ever came, to the south into the Janitor’s garden and a small basement entrance to the west have been changed, but the disorganized inside has never been sorted out.

It was in 1882 while this building was in use as a science building that William McMurtrie from the U.S. Department of Agriculture came to be Head of the Department. He was assisted by one graduate student and by one senior A. W. Palmer.

After graduation Palmer went to Harvard for graduate study returning to Illinois as an instructor and the same salary as before. But when McMurtrie left in 1888 to become chief chemist for the Royal Baking Company, Palmer was passed over for the headship because of his youthful appearance. Annoyed, Palmer went to Germany to study while Dr. J. C. Jackson became Head. Within six months Jackson had made chaos of the department and the administration in desperation cabled Palmer to come back. Palmer accepted, returning in the fall of 1889 as Head of the Department and as Assistant Professor and as the same salary as before. A year later he was made full professor. He was teaching then eight hours a day with only two student assistants. Relief from this heavy load came the following fall with the appointment to the staff of S. W. Parr.

By 1895, because of both the fire and increasing enrollment, a new chemistry building was sorely needed. In 1897 legislature gave money for a new library; in 1899 the money went to the Agricultural College. Chemistry had to wait its turn. Finally in 1901, $100,000 was appropriated for a chemistry building. Of considerable value in obtaining this money was the State Water Survey which had been founded by Palmer in 1895 with help of S. W. Parr and Edmund Bartow. The Water Survey promised to analyze free any water sample arising within Illinois. As this was the same time as the building of the Chicago Sanitary Canal and the reversal of flow of the Illinois river, water was much on people’s minds and the needs of the State Water Survey ranked high with the legislators. So the first part of Noyes Lab, (the western half) was built. The building alone used up $99,200 of the $100,000 appropriated and therefore had to be furnished with equipment moved from the old science labs in Harker Hall.

During the Harker Hall years, clubs were an important part of college life and a Chemistry Club had been founded. Many parties were held. To enliven these affairs the members played pranks on their guests. At their last party the lacrymator benzyl bromide was used in abundance. The complaints resulting were too much for the dean. He ordered the Club to disband. In 1899 a new club promising more responsible behavior was formed. This club was named Phi Lambda Upsilon and soon became a national honorary chemical fraternity. The founders of PLU remembering fondly their earlier club designed the emblem to include p-bromotoluene in memory of the infamous benzyl bromide. In 1903, the first PhD was awarded to W. H. Dehn who later became a member of the staff at the University of Washington.

A.W. Palmer   In 1904 A. W. Palmer died probably of overwork at 50. This quiet man had really given his life to chemistry at Illinois. The next spring at the New Orleans meeting of the ACS, Ed Bartow and S. W. Parr inquired of W. A. Noyes, the Chief Chemist of U. S. Bureau of Standards who should be the new head at Illinois. Dr. Noyes suggested himself. An offer was made and accepted. So W. A. Noyes came to Illinois. He was a quiet, serious man in his late forties. Although his contributions ranged over all fields of chemistry, he is best known for his contribution to the chemical literature. He was editor of the Journal of the American Chemical society from 1902-1917 and an associate editor from 1917 until his death in 1941. As editor of the Journal, he saw the need for an abstracting service and in 1907, soon after arriving at Illinois he founded Chemical Abstracts, setting up the subject matter divisions, choosing the editor of each section (and none turned him down) and organizing the whole thing. Chemical Abstracts was run from Illinois for the first years of its existence. Noyes had hoped to make this Journal a joint English language venture but the Chemical Society was not interested. He also wanted Chemical Abstracts to be absolutely thorough in its coverage of the literature and indeed it has fulfilled that goal. In addition to Chemical Abstracts, he was instrumental in starting Chemical Reviews and the monograph series. He wrote texts, he directed the research of graduate students and most of all he set out to make his department the best, easing out the average, seeking out and bringing to Illinois the best chemists he could find and once appointed giving them as much support as he could. Among those he brought to Illinois were Roger Adams, Speed Marvel, Will Rose, B. S. Hopkins, Worth Rodebush ( a physical chemist, student of G. N. Lewis and said by one English professor to be the smartest man in the department). He inaugurated the open door policy at Illinois. Students were free to come and discuss problems with him but he did not seek them out. A problem once given to a student belonged to the student. Noyes acted only as consultant. In addition to these attributes, Noyes was truly absent-minded. He would for example attend a graduate student’s prelim on Friday and ask the student on Monday when he was planning to take his prelim. He always attended his graduate student’s foreign language exams. If said student stumbled W. A. Noyes would say "let me see that" and a few minutes later say "I don’t think I would translate that myself." Of course the student passed. Outside chemistry, Noyes had few interests. In the annual faculty student baseball game he was always assigned to the outfield where his preoccupation with chemistry or birds would not seriously disrupt the game. He was active in his church and rumor was that a certain percentage of the chemists should also be Congregationalists. W. A. Noyes retired in 1926 not by choice but by directive. He continued his activity in chemistry. In 1937 the now enlarged chemistry building was named Noyes Laboratory in his honor and a huge party was held to celebrate his 80th birthday.

During these years, while if Noyes represented the interests of pure chemistry, S. W. Parr represented applied chemistry and the day-to-day operation of the chemistry department. A University of Illinois undergraduate and member of the varsity baseball team, he taught at Illinois College before coming to the University. He made Illinois coal and coal products his life work. Calorimetry and the development of corrosion resistant metals and the Parr bomb were natural outgrowth of this interest. His research produced Illium — the non-ferrous alloy of high tensile strength, high ductility, and a remarkable resistance to corrosion.

Aside from this research on behalf of Illinois, S. W. Parr attained international fame as a teacher and a sympathetic adviser and friend of students. He was outgoing where Noyes was private. While Noyes bird-watched in the outfield, Parr played 1st base bouncing up and down the foul line. He too became emeritus in 1926. Two years later, he was president of the American Chemical Society. He continued to be active at the University in the YMCA, the Athletic Association and the Choral society.

During the Noyes-Parr years much happened at Illinois. By 1913 space which in 1904 had been expected to be ample for the next twenty-five years was inadequate. This time the legislature appropriated money promptly. The east half of Noyes Laboratory was built larger than the first half, and as fireproof as possible. The only fireproofing in the older part of the building had been several inches of sand between the layers of floor planking. The new half had as little wood as possible. The floors were of hollow tile covered with two inches of concrete. The roof was concrete with wood sheeting; the partitions of "pyrobar tile". Each hood (and there were many) had an independent flue. Forced circulation of air throughout the laboratories is supposed to have changed the air eleven times an hour. There was again a room for the chemistry club, a journal room with a fireplace, and the state water and geological survey were assigned larger quarters on the ground floor.

To celebrate the new building the American Chemical Society was invited to meet in Urbana in April 1916. It was the largest national meeting yet held. — 729 in attendance — far more than predicted. The large attendance was too much for the hotels or restaurants of Urbana. Meals were served by the home economics students. Attendees were housed in faculty homes. At this conclave the organic division held its meetings in a class room. The total capacity of which is only thirty persons. There was still room for interested graduate students as well as those organic chemists at the meeting. Tours of the dairy laboratory, the creamery, and the Morrow Plots were scheduled. A review by the University Brigade finished off one day. A concert and smoker the second day. The Cosmopolitan Club furnished a Zula war dance and Hawaiian dancers for the smoker. There was group singing, a parody of Mammy was addressed to Dr. Parsons, executive secretary of the ACS. The whole company joined in singing a song introduced to Urbana in 1915

          I did not raise my boy to be a chemist

          I brought him up to be my pride and joy

          Who dares to place an apron round his shoulders

          and make such smells for mother’s darling boy?

World War I saw the departure of faculty to government service, among others Bartow to France with Sanitary Engineers — Roger Adams to Chemical Warfare. Back on the campus was the beginning of one of the remarkable endeavors in the history of Illinois chemistry, the establishment of the organic chemical manufacturing unit.

The project, a direct result of the German Blockade, was started by the department with the support of the university administration as a public service to the country. Dr. Clarence G. Derrick, a Noyes PhD, and a pioneer in qualitative organic was in charge of the operation. Carl Marvel, a new graduate student and a mere slip of a boy, spent most of 1917 and 1918 working on the project. One of his first assignments was to prepare pure samples of three isomeric octanes and as he says at that time, you could not even buy a bottle of fusel oil in this country. I will omit the details of his synthesis but he can give them to you. The lab where the project was located had no hoods, yet thirty-five lb. batches of chloroacetophenone, a potent lacrymator, two pound batches of dimethylglyoxime and five lb. batches of arsenic compounds were prepared. Marvel himself had a severe bout of arsenic poisoning but as Roger Adams predicted, it went away.

The project, a hybrid of profitable endeavor and organic prep, was to continue each summer through the early fifties (38 graduate students were employed in the summer of 1940). At 25 cents/hour it soon became necessary to limit the number of hours each worker could put in, enthusiasm and financial need having combined to make twenty hour days commonplace. Enormous forty liter flasks and six-foot columns were brought out each June and stored away in September. American production of fine organic chemicals began with this project. When Eastman Chemical started up, Hans Clarks spent several months in Urbana studying the system Merck obtained from Illinois many of its preparative methods. For years the lab furnished optically pure amino acid samples to experimental biochemists. The project also led to the publication of organic Synthesis. The first volume of which was published in 1921 with Roger Adams as editor. There was a brief flurry of inorganic synthesis preparing such things as mercury (II) sulfate for Will Rose.

Shortly after the war, B. S. Hopkins came, a distinguished teacher and thoughtful advisor. He served for years as director of general chemistry. His research interests centered on the rare earths and it was thus that the ill fated Illinium was isolated. Old Illini remember the periodic tables at Illinois listing Illinium as element 61; as late as 1956 it appeared in a Hopkins text.

In 1926 W. A. Noyes retired and Roger Adams became Head. Noyes was familiar with the prairie having attended Grinnell in Iowa. Adams on the other hand being by birth and by temperament a New Englander and having been educated only at Harvard had come in 1916 rather doubtful about life on the prairie and planned to stay only one year — not sixty years here. After his retirement Dr. Adams recorded his views on many subjects. By 1960 he had decided that if the staff was competent, the graduate students of high quality and needed equipment provided, the prairie was not a handicap. In fact said he, "neither a small town nor the moral climate of a small town is a problem as these offer few distractions to the students and result in more time spent in the lab". Similarly there was during these years a definite feeling that a graduate student should have neither a wife nor a car.

Dr. Adams continued the policies of W. A. Noyes with respect to the department. Using his own phrases "the standing of a department depends on the distinction of its staff. The contribution of the head is the judgment used in scrutinizing each new appointee. Relaxation of this attention will lead inevitably to lowering of overall quality. The head must see that a favorable atmosphere is provided for research; this involves encouragement, recognition and support".

Bob Fuson put it more succinctly: one must ruthlessly uproot the less than brilliant young instructors but send them away to an apparently better offer with no scars on the uprooted sapling.

It is impossible to list all the accomplishments of Roger Adams. He did everything, won all the medals, and held all the offices. He believed in thrift as witness the story of the discovery of the Adams catalyst. A solution of chloroplatinic acid had been spilled on a wooden desk top. Well aware of Roger’s frugality, the guilty graduate student scraped it up of course mixing in some wood and paint as well. Burning away this organic material produced a hitherto unknown brown platinum oxide which on reduction yielded the very active platinum black catalyst now known as the Adams catalyst. He had a fabulous memory not only for melting points and journal references but also for cards — as witness his legendary ability at poker. Stopping in the lab on Sunday he found the graduate students dealing out the cards. He asked to be dealt in. Shortly thereafter having pocketed all their money he left saying "Don’t ever play poker on Sunday!"

Occasionally his students won a round. In one seminar class they asked him to omit the final exam. Roger refused. A few weeks later when Roger came into the lab one student said "you owe me a cigar," another "you owe me a beer". "No way, " said Roger. "Yes", said the student, "in our exams on page 7 we wrote I bet a beer (cigar, etc.) that you won’t get this far!"

Anyone who doubted his standards of integrity should have heard him denounce before the University Senate the promoters of Krebiozen.

Chemically he had a blind spot toward all but organic. Discussing the first volume of inorganic syntheses he is reported to have said, this is a good project, one can never tell when an organic chemist will need an inorganic compound. The stockroom doors to the organickers mysteriously closed when an inorganic chemist wanted to borrow some of their equipment.

He was a marvelous person, we lived next door to him for a few years before his death. He was as independent and true to his high standards as ever — urging us on to more and better weeding, tree trimming, house painting, etc.

I should not omit mentioning Roger Adams’ secretary, Mrs. Evans, known around the department as "the old lady". Now she really ran the department and with an iron hand. Once Roger made a rule she saw to it that it was obeyed leaving Adams free for other responsibilities. But there was no love lost between them. She vowed she knew enough to put the Chief in the penitentiary for ten years and no one doubted that she would try if sufficiently riled. Rumor says that she once had the IRS audit his accounts. One weekend when she was inside the building she saw Roger pounding on the outside door hoping someone would let him in. Mrs. Evans would not. When asked why she said, "Your rule is no one comes in who doesn’t have a key". Roger Adams was indeed fanatic about the proper use of keys. One Sunday afternoon he found one of the secretaries typing in the main office. Challenged, the secretary said that the graduate student whose thesis she was typing had loaned her his key. Dr. Adams was furious, vowing that said graduate student would never receive a degree from Illinois. Bob Fuson and Speed Marvel worked for four days to get that edict revoked.

Speed Marvel complemented Roger Adams much as Parr had complemented Noyes. He was the moderator of the Adams personality and power, and a brilliant administrator and chemist in his own right. Marvel was one of the first of the American trained organic chemists. Prior to him all properly trained chemists spent at least a year studying in Europe, largely in Germany. Marvel came to Urbana from Illinois Wesleyan on a graduate scholarship. He had not planned to do graduate work but being offered the fellowship consulted his father, a mid-Illinois farmer, about accepting. His father said, "If any one is foolish enough to pay you to study, I think you should let him". So Marvel came to Illinois and Illinois has not been quite the same. Marvel was a marvelous teacher, and the despair of his colleagues. Fuson says that five minutes before a lecture Marvel could pick up a well worn set of lecture notes, look them over, scribble some notes in the margin and stride off to class. His students would later report that the lecture had been a marvel of organization, crammed full of up-to-date information and delivered at an unbelievable rate. In fact his speed of lecturing is one of the many reasons given for his nickname, "Speed". He says it was bestowed because he could get out of bed and to breakfast faster than anyone else in his fraternity. Others say it is because of his legendary speed in identifying organic compounds. He admits that he can identify five hundred compounds positively by smell alone, about two hundred more he can classify as to group. When Marvel took qualitative organic, the professor, Oliver Kao distressed that so much was done by odor gave Speed a mixture which Kao vowed would stump his student. Speed whiffed it once and reported its contents to be a volatile fatty acid, a volatile alcohol, an aromatic amine but missed perfection because the mixture had also contained water. When questioned about the health hazard involved in this method, Speed says that at least he had eschewed the German method of identifying compounds by taste.

He did everything in the most direct way. When the local police called him at 2 A.M. to inquire whether throwing sodium in the local creek was the proper way to dispose of waste sodium (as the gendarmes had been told on accosting Speed’s students engaged in this activity), Speed is reported to have said, "Hell, yes" and slammed down the receiver. When birdwatching Speed cruised the back roads of Illinois at 70 MPH occasionally screeching to a halt, listening a minute, and then saying over there is such and such a bird -. He then checked it off his list and roared off again. No one ever proved him wrong.

His early research interests focussed on the role of free radicals in organic chemistry, particularly polymers. DuPont started him in this field in the twenties by asking him what they could make from ethylene at 10¢ a pound and sulfur dioxide at $5.00 a ton. Speed and his students made a polymer but were unable to make a solid without bubbles, so the project was abandoned. It has since been reimplemented by Bell telephone who want the bubbles. The graduate students working on the project found they could dip a stirring rod in the reaction mixture and run far down the corridor before breaking the thread which emerged from the reaction vessel. Competitions were held to determine who could draw the longest thread — and hence was started cold drawing of addition polymers.

Perhaps Dr. Marvel’s greatest feat in the field of polymer chemistry was the rubber project. During the late 30’s he did a great deal of consulting which entailed weekly trips to Washington and New York. This was exhausting, requiring four nights on the road each week. In December 1941, tired of the whole thing, he tendered his resignation. However, the Japanese attacks in the Pacific had just brought to the fore the critical need for synthetic rubber. Speed was asked to head a program to produce one. He agreed on the condition that he could have $100,000 for the project. Overnight the grant was awarded. The project involving ten companies and as many universities was run from Urbana. In one year they had perfected Buna S rubber. Plants were built before the processes were perfected and then run at 150% of rated capacity. By the end of the war they were making enough rubber for the tires for all passenger cars.

A side aspect of the rubber project was dealing with the drafts boards of the numerous graduate students involved in this and other projects. The draft boards and the appeal boards became a constant headache first to Adams, then to Marvel — later to John Bailar. One morning for example Marvel came into the lab to find fifty graduate students had just been reassigned 1A. He called Washington to get releases for them. Many times the appeals went right down to the wire. Only two or three students gave up the effort and enlisted. Only two appeal cases were lost during the entire period.

It is remarkable that during these years there were as few accidents as there were. A few fires are noteworthy. One of these is known as the carbon disulfide fire. A student was crushing dry ice with a hammer. The head of the hammer flew off the handle and across the room hitting a bottle of carbon disulfide. The bottle broke spilling the carbon disulfide on a radiator. Another time a bottle of sodium stored in kerosene slipped off a shelf over an operating combustion furnace. Of course, the kerosene caught fire. The firemen came but were kept out by Roger Adams with a fire ax standing at the door of the room while Dr. Marvel sprinkled sand on the fire.

During one fire in the rubber lab, the firemen arrived to do their duty. In a commendable effort to help, students pulled on the hose and pulled it apart. While the hose was being reconnected the fireman were horrified to see cylinders of gas standing in the lab. Immediately, the cylinders of nitrogen were carried down outside ladders but the butadiene tanks were left in the lab. The fire was finally extinguished, the firemen left, Marvel reentered the lab to see the liquid butadiene was still shooting across the lab through the melted safety valve of one of these cylinders.

Adams retired in 1957 and remained in Urbana, active in all areas of chemistry until his death in 1972.

Marvel retired in 1963 and moved to Arizona where he is still an active member of the department. He left behind him the Marvel stockroom, a richly aromatic and useful treasure trove of chemicals. Many of these stories have come from him.

The stories about Adams and Marvel go on and on but there are others on the faculty who should be mentioned.

Bob Fuson, who came in 1927, says that Illinois refused him admission as a graduate student only to prevent inbreeding when he was later appointed to the faculty. Dr. Fuson was a bachelor and devoted to his students. He disclaims his legendary ability as a teacher saying no matter how he tried to organize and polish his notes his lectures were never as good as Marvel’s. Reading Fuson’s memoirs in the University archives one gets the feeling that here is a little brown mouse scared and intimidated by everyone. Actually Fuson was no quiet mouse but a brilliant chemist who played a significant role in department policy making but behind the scenes. He was a staunch supporter of the local chapter of AXE; the junior author of Shriner and Fuson because he didn’t want to answer the mail the senior author would receive; and the author of architectural chemical couplets such

          What is like a column Doric?

          The cyclic acid d-camphoric


          Who would mistake the middle aisle

          For p-bromobenzonitrile?

He retired in 1963 moving to the University of Utah from which he is now emeritus.

Another power during these years was the biochemist Will Rose. In fact Adams, Rose, and Fuson made a triumvirate still spoken of with respect by local bankers. Dr. Rose is the model of a southern gentleman, soft spoken and gracious, a charming man with a mind like a steel trap and a will of iron. A student of Mendel at Yale, he came to Illinois in 1923. He wasn't too happy with Illinois but Parr persuaded him to stay.

Will was a great teacher. Particularly remembered is his course on Intermediate Metabolism. He would start lecturing in his soft southern way as he came in the door of the lecture room. He stopped as he opened the door on the way out. There was no rush, no disorganization, just a beautifully complete lecture.

His graduate students were required, as he had been, to attend weekly seminars at which each gave a ten-minute research oriented talk. Will, himself is known for his work on the role of amino acids in human nutrition. Graduate students participating in this study lived for months eating only amino acid cookies and lemonade. Will became emeritus in 1955. He remains an active bird watcher although his technique is a little different from that of Karl Marvel.

Of those Illinois chemists I want to mention, John Bailar was the last to arrive, coming from Michigan in 1928. I will not dwell on his many roles at Illinois as secretary of the department, adviser to AXE, placement office and head of general chemistry. Nor on his activities as officer of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. I will only say that for an organic chemist, he has certainly made his mark in inorganic chemistry.

As I finish writing I realize that I have said nothing of chemistry at Illinois since 1945. I have recounted no anecdotes of those men (there were hardly any women) who came after 1928. Twenty-five years from now the anecdotes will be about them.