Remembering John P. Hummel, professor emeritus of chemistry

John P. Hummel

Longtime colleagues in the Department of Chemistry are mourning the loss of emeritus professor John P. Hummel, 92, of Champaign, who passed away on Feb. 15, 2024.

Affectionately nicknamed “Doc” in high school for his serious demeanor and studious ways, Prof. Hummel earned a Bausch & Lomb scholarship to attend the University of Rochester, where he graduated in 1953 with a B.S. in chemistry with high distinction. He graduated with his Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956 where his advisor was the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Glenn Seaborg.

Soon after his doctorate, he joined the faculty in chemistry and physics at the University of Illinois, where his research interests focused on nuclear chemistry. He retired in 1993 as associate director of the School of Chemical Sciences. During the last several years of his career, he was involved in the planning of the Chemistry and Life Sciences Laboratory and worked closely with the late Prof. Herb Gutowsky, who served as Director of SCS from 1970 to 1983, and with the late Cope Hubert, who was director of Building Safety and Maintenance for SCS from 1976 to 1991.

Prof. Jonathan Sweedler, acting Head of the Department of Chemistry, said he remembers Prof. Hummel helping him design his labs and working on the renovations when he joined the chemistry faculty at Illinois 33 years ago. And when Prof. Scott Denmark joined the chemistry faculty at Illinois 44 years ago, he said Hummel was already a fixture in the department.

"Nuclear chemistry had dried up and he was in an important administrative position managing the School of Chemical Sciences and the Department under Herb Gutowsky. John was a great help in getting the lab up and running, was approachable (compared to Herb) and could never be seen without a piece of lumber (toothpick) in his mouth. You could determine his reaction and mood by the frequency of vibration of the toothpick," Denmark recalled.

Prof. Martin Gruebele also recalls Hummel helping him with his lab space and providing wise words when he started as an assistant professor in 1992.

"Doc Hummel was a kind and level-headed man, which is not always the norm in academia," Gruebele said. 

Prof. Tom Rauchfuss said Hummel was "a normal human" among the faculty:  "Since he had no research ambitions, he was neutral. I viewed him as Herb Gutowsky's consiglieri. A man of few words, but who was constantly on the watch. He always seemed amused by the anxiety displayed by me and all the other hyper ambitious faculty. He and Cope Hubert kept the operation running. His apparent unit of money was the cost of one door frame (ca $12k). Our needs were few. The era of big grants had not started, renovations were modest, endowments were not on our minds, new buildings were not discussed," Rauchfuss said.

Alex Scheeline, professor emeritus of chemistry, said he can still see John with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, calmly handling everything around him.

"He and Cope Hubert kept the school running; John made the decisions, while Cope handled the details," said Scheeline, who recalls how another colleague on the chemistry faculty once observed how to know when John was upset — he moved the toothpick to the other side of his mouth. "Just as with everyone else of my generation, he oversaw putting my lab together. In the late '90s, he found resources I needed to update the teaching of the graduate spectroscopy course from '60s vintage to current technology. He didn't say much; he just made things work. A good man."

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