Memories of Student Days in Chemistry at Illinois (1987) by Bill Lycan

Biographical excerpt from the Winter '87 "Alumni News"

William H. Lycan's career is marked by his accomplishments and dedication to the chemical sciences. Dr. Lycan was a native of Vermillion, Illinois and earned three degrees from the University of Illinois. He received his BS in 1924, MS in 1926, and his PhD in 1929, all in chemistry. During his seven years at du Pont, Dr. Lycan worked in the organic division, synthesizing anthraquinone dyes. He claims he got the job because he had done his thesis under Roger Adams and therefore "could spell anthraquinones and even knew a little something about them."

From 1938 to 1949 he worked for Pittsburgh Plate and Glass company, first as Director of Research and later as Executive Director of Research of the Paint Division. While there, he worked on basic raw materials, synthetic resins and modified vegetable oils. As a byproduct, during World War II, the company supplied significant amounts of sytosterol, which replaced no longer available cholesterol widely used in the drug industry for the synthesis of essential natural hormones. The culmination of his career was his 20 years at Johnson and Johnson, serving as Director of Research, Vice President and finally as Vice Chairman of Johnson and Johnson International. In 1970 Dr. Lycan received the gold medal of the Society of the Chemical Industry (SCI) for his many contributions to the profession and to the industry.

My memory of student days in chemistry at Illinois spans the decade of the nineteen twenties. I was an undergraduate from 1920-1924 and in the graduate school from 1925-1929. Those were the closing years under the leadership of Professor Noyes and the opening years under that of Roger Adams. They were great and exciting years.

I remember the excitement of the lectures in freshman chemistry under Professor Hopkins. He was a superb teacher and lecturer with a strong flair for the dramatic. He illustrated his lectures with demonstration experiments delivered on cue by a funny little man who could have made a great success as an actor. Together, they dispelled any idea that chemistry had to be dull.

I remember Organic in my second year, the quiet, pedantic but beautifully structured lectures of Professor Noyes and the clear, down-to-earth laboratory sessions under Speed Marvel. Professor Noyes might easily have been dull, but he avoided it by being anecdotal and bringing the science into close relationship with life and living. And it was my great good fortune to come to know Speed Marvel early and well. I found myself sharing a laboratory bench in Organic with Speed's youngest sister, LY placed next to MA. He need not have worried, she was very bright, but he came by almost every session just to make sure.

Yes, I remember best those teachers under whom I had classes. George Beale, who managed to take the drudgery out of Analytical and who, on his own initiative, found jobs for four year graduates. Among them, one Bill Lycan, as a teaching instructor at the University of Tennessee. And Professor Rodebush, slow of speech but with lots to say and always with a sneaky little sense of humor that popped up at the most unexpected times. And Professor Parr, of distinguished appearance and a truly "PROFESSIONAL" man with great talent for invention.

It was not these alone, however, that remain fresh in my memory. The whole staff managed to convey a feeling of interest and concern for all the undergraduate students. It was not necessary to be registered in one of their classes to gain their attention or to get to know them personally. Who will forget Duane Englis, Friendly, a fine teacher, and a faithful loyalist to Illinois. Or Professor Reedy, homespun, witty, perceptive and compassionate, a friend whenever one was needed. Or George Frederick Smith, gregarious, outgoing, and a model of what can be done solely by individual initiative.

And then there were two others who were already becoming living legends, Professor Rose and Roger Adams. As an undergraduate I never got to know wither of them very well. That did not keep me from being fully aware of their contributions to the national reputation of the department. I had a full measure of the spirit of fierce pride that was shared by undergraduate and graduate students alike in Chemistry at Illinois in the early twenties.

Finally, I remember many "personalities", Marion Sparks for example, librarian par excellence and friend of every Illinois chemist from 1924-1929. And Red Dalton, chemical storekeeper and a great keeper of departmental secrets (gossip) as well. And Justa Lindgren, a fine chemist who would give you a brief job once in a while and who was always a pipeline to what was what with Illinois football.

After graduation and a year of teaching at Tennessee, I returned to Urbana and enrolled in the graduate school. I was a "walk-on" of sorts. Illinois undergraduates were traditionally "encouraged" to go to some other university to pursue graduate studies. Customarily, a prospective graduate student announced his intention in advance and sought some kind of a fellowship or other source of financial aid. He would also arrange with a member of the senior staff to serve as his research advisor. In my case, I was willing to risk the hazard of "in-growing" and thus came in as a "walk-on" without assurance of financial support and without discussion of my aspirations with a research advisor of my choice.

I barged in and registered, elected a major in organic chemistry, a first minor in physical chemistry and a second minor in English Literature. As fast as I know I was the first, and remain the only student in the history of the Graduate School in Chemistry to elect an English second minor. I signed up that summer for two courses, "Comparative English Literature" under Professor Birnbaum, head of the department of English, and "Review of Organic Chemistry for Graduate Students" under Roger Adams. I had a wonderful summer.

I had no more than appeared in the old chemistry building when Professor Hopkins sought me out and offered me a part-time job for the summer cleaning up the untouched debris of many years of bad housekeeping in research laboratories assigned to him. He had remembered me as an undergraduate classmate of his son, Harvey Hopkins. The job was a janitorial assignment involving mainly glorified dish washing. There was not much intellectual challenge but it paid 40 cents per hour. Money was not plentiful in my family and I grabbed the job with gratitude.

Before the summer's end and with careful attention to timing, I approached Roger Adams and asked him to accept me as a research student. During my year at Tennessee, I had taken time to assess my goals and had made up my mind on two things. I wanted to return to Illinois for graduate study in organic chemistry and I was determined to work for Roger Adams.

Roger must have been surprised by me determination, if not by my qualifications. I shall never forget the more than two hours we spent talking about graduate research. With no intimation that there was anything presumptuous either in my approach to him or in my "walk on" registration, he talked for quite a long time about alternatives. It was only later that I realized that he had very probably been quite close to kicking me out of his office. But he did not and, in the end, he accepted me and I went out walking on the clouds.

Registration in the undergraduate courses that fall (1925) exceeded all expectations. Early in the morning following the second day of registration, I received an SOS call asking if I would accept an appointment as a graduate assistant at $65/mo. For the school year of 1925-26. Not only was I going to work for Roger Adams, I was going to eat regularly. 1925 was one of my best years.

I shall not try to memorialize my joy in working with Roger for four years in these brief notes. Stanley and Ann Tarbell in their book, "Roger Adams - Scientist and Statesman", have done a superb job for all of us who are beholden to him. It is must reading not only for Illinois chemists but for chemists everywhere who are interested in the history of the science. It was my great good fortune to have been working for him when he succeeded to the chairmanship and to have watched as he continued to build the great department he had inherited.

He strengthened Illinois in every aspect of chemical science. In organic, in my time alone, he brought in successively John R. Johnson, Wallace Carrothers, Ralph Shriner, and Bob Fuson. Seldom has one short era seen such succession, giants all of them, coming to join a super giant, Speed Marvel. I am thankful for having had the opportunity of knowing them all well.

Jack Johnson tutored me in enough French so I could satisfy my language requirements in the subject. Doc Carrothers chose me as his graduate assistant in Chemistry 38, Organic Analysis and we were later to spend many hours and evenings together at DuPont. Bob Fuson shared with me his tastes for reading and gourmet cooking and joined me in frequent visits home where he enjoyed the wit and wisdom of my country doctor father. Speed Marvel and Ralph Shriner shared innumerable fishing and hunting excursions with me, a feature of extracurricular activity of Illinois chemists for many years.

The fishing and hunting excursions deserve a few more words. We fished regularly at the Polywogs near Danville, a series of deep finger lakes left behind by abandoned strip mining operations. Besides Speed and Ralph, chemistry was regularly represented by Arthur Buswell, head of the state water survey and a gung-ho fisherman and hunter, by Tom Hamilton, a perennial candidate for a degree in biochemistry under Dr. Rose, Wendel Moyer and many others.

The same group made frequent hunting expeditions in the fall and winter seasons. We hunted over a very wide area; on property out in the Dutch Flats owned by a friendly organic storekeeper named Tillotson, on farms owned by friends of Speed near Fithian, on the Marvel family farm at Waynesville near Lincoln, and on land my father owned near Paris. None of us except Speed was very good with a gun. Our chief rivalry consisted in avoiding being one of those who all too frequently, was "skunked" and had to come home with no tall tales to tell.

At the risk of creating an impression I never did any chemistry at all, I have to confess that I found a little time for golf. I played on occasion with Frank Driggs and Len Yntema, associates of Professor Hopkins and both fine golfers. Len, along with a Canadian graduate student named Harris, was credited along with Professor Hopkins with the "discovery" of Illinium, the elusive Element No. 61. Len's father-in-law, Mt. Busey of the well known Urbana family, a grand old man, invited us now and then for a round at Urbana Country Club. That was a treat to look forward to.

I played a little tennis too. I teamed up with Harvey Neville to play doubles in a faculty series on University courts one summer. Harvey was a fine player and great competitor and we had one fine summer of competition before he was called to Lehigh University. Our paths were to cross there again many years later when he was Dean of the Graduate School.

In spite of the diversions it was not all play and no work in the roaring twenties. We worked long hours, days and evenings and over weekends. We looked forward to Roger's daily rounds which were made without fail except when he was out of town. On Saturdays and Sundays we could expect longer sessions. It was not all about our own work. It was a running commentary on the state of the science, what they were doing in Madison and Cambridge and in Munich and Zurich. It was reminiscences about Kohler's laboratory at Harvard and accounts of consulting visits at DuPont and Abbott Laboratories. It was a form of teaching that was Roger's hallmark as long as time permitted such luxury.

I remember the summer of "preps", Organic Chemicals manufacturers, at 40 cents per hour where I learned a lot of laboratory technique. I remember crowded Organic Seminars, usually conducted by Roger, and attended by everyone with even a remote interest in organic. I remember the fear and trembling of preparation for "prelims" and the blessed relief when they were behind me. I remember the final rush of finishing a thesis and circulating it to get the signature of my committee.

And then, suddenly, on a bright day in June, 1929, in Memorial Stadium, we had our degrees and I thought it was over. I was wrong, it wasn't really over, and here I am after fifty years remembering every minute of it with unadulterated pleasure.