The National Research Council Fellowship which I held at Harvard for two years stipulated that I work on research problems of my own under the sponsorship of Professor Elmer Peter Kohler. I was lucky right from the start. The first experiment I tried gave an entirely unexpected result action and presently it became clear that I had stumbled upon a new type of reaction.
The smoldering spark I had brought from Minnesota seemed to burst into flame. It. was only a brush fire you might say - I did not try anything very ambitious - but it crackled merrily and I was consumed with an enthusiasm that exceeded anything I had ever known before. I had found what I was looking for; from then on the controlling interest in my life was to be research. It was an escape, too; my shortcomings in other respects, once so punishing, had passed into the background. The only comparison that comes to mind is with the person who "gets religion" and abandons the old life for the new. I was to spend the rest of my life as a missionary bringing the research cult to students.
At Harvard I worked with Kohler' s students on the third floor of Boylston Hall and I found them very helpful and stimulating. I got much from Robert C. Goodwin, for example; later he was to be president of Texas Technological University. A person to whom I was indebted in an editorial way was Professor Lamb's secretary who oversaw the job of getting out the Journal of the American Chemical Society. She had taken the PhD degree in modern languages so we had much in common. She helped me with my first seven papers among which were the two reporting work I had done as a graduate student.
My third year at Harvard was spent as an instructor and what I really did was to assist with Professor Kohler's laboratory class and with his researches. During that year the famous Grignard machine was developed; the glass blowing offered problems and I remember going to New York and supervising its construction by Eimer and Amend.
At that time Professor Kohler was generally regarded as the dean of organic chemists in this country. His renown especially in Cambridge rested not only on the things that he did but also on what he did not do. He was very shy and gained publicity by his determined efforts to shun it. He declined to make speeches even about chemistry and could never be found by camera men; he never spoke at an Organic Symposium and never, so far as I know, accepted a medal. The only office he ever held in any learned society was that of associate editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society while his colleague and close friend, Professor Lamb, was editor. Even when his official appointment expired he continued editorial work.
His lectures to his classes were exceedingly well planned and were delivered in a way that kept the students on the edge of their seats. His students were unanimous in the opinion that as a lecturer he excelled all others. If the Manufacturing Chemists Awards had been available in his time he would surely have been among the first awardees; one feels sure though that he would not have traveled to White Sulphur Springs to receive the honor.
Kohler's idiosyncrasies inevitably made him a man of mystery and gave rise to many stories. One for which I can vouch has to do with a call Bob Goodwin and I made on him when he was on his summer vacation at his ancestral home in Egypt, Pennsylvania. We found him painting the front yard fence and got the impression that during what he called his vacation he merely resumed work on the farm as if he had never been away. The concept of "the King", as he was called at school, as a farm hand seemed, to be confirmed when a local youth passed by and to our great delight, greeted the professor blithely with "Hello, Elmer".
One feature of Kohler's philosophy became apparent to me when I told him that I wanted a teaching job. Since my one desire was to find a school which would enable me to continue independent research, Antioch seemed to be pretty far down on the list. Then to my great surprise I discovered that I was being recommended to the University of Illinois, which stood at the top of the list. That Kohler could consider Antioch College one day and Illinois the next puzzled me greatly. His contention was that if one really wanted to do research any school should provide the opportunity. This belief seemed to be justified by his own record; his researches at Bryn Mawr College had won him a professorship at Harvard.
My capabilities as Illinois must have evaluated them were shown by my papers. To begin with I had more or less sidestepped the apprentice system as a graduate student. The two papers reporting the student researches were published under my name alone. Then, I added five more papers by work at Harvard, and finally my name appeared on Kohler's paper on the Grignard machine. Kohler was probably right that this progress could have been continued in a small college, though slowly, and might have given great rewards in terms of personal satisfaction. At Illinois I was to learn that success in research, no matter how personal it might seem, brought in its train many unlooked for entanglements and distracting responsibilities.
Sometimes I wondered wistfully how it would be to return to Montana or move to an even smaller school. In 1947 I went to Rice University as a visiting professor with every intention of staying. But the hold Illinois had on me proved to be too strong. Years later Joe Sutton wrote of me, "He never seemed to realize this (Illinois) is a large university.
The attraction of Rice lay partly in its architecture, a subject I had come to love by auditing Professor Newcomb's" course on its history. It had something in common with organic chemistry, I felt. I enjoyed writing formulas of organic compounds with an eye to symmetry and mass distribution. Once, I set out to write a humorous book on "Molecular" Architecture" in which structural elements of molecular formulas would be shown to have architectural counterparts.
I planned also to steal from Wood's "How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers" and contrive to make chemical formulas look like buildings or parts of buildings.
Is this the house on the hill
Or merely chlorophyll?
Doesn't Reinicke's colored salt
Resemble a Gothic vault?
Who would think that pentacene
Would look just like a choir screen?
What is like a column Doric?
The cyclic acid, d-camphoric.
Who would mistake the middle aisle
Only a nave would ever try
Sweet glycerol to esterify.
Would you believe that bis-phenol
Would yield a really strong ridgepole?
Eventually I realized that I could be sure to have only one reader - myself. Who would understand or enjoy the comparison of an angular methyl group with a corbel squinch? And who would have the artistic skill to draw them so that they would look deceptively alike?
Illinois in the Late 'Twenties
Illinois philosophy places great emphasis on a chemist's obligations to his profession. Following the examples of Noyes and Adams, Illinois chemists - both faculty and alumni - have a distinguished record of service in the American Chemical Society and in general have worked for the good of chemists and chemistry everywhere. I subscribe fully to this policy although I was always too Kohlerian to carry my full share of the load.
Luckily I found a sort of teammate in Dr. C. S. Marvel whose talents complemented mine remarkably, at least he had strength where I most needed help; he was the "front man" in many things we did together. He saw to it that I got appropriate teaching assignments and good research opportunities. When I was ready to start my first research problem I sought his advice about the synthesis of the needed starting materials - ethyl α —bromopropionate. and the βsomer. He thought a minute, then went to a storeroom (still called "Marvel's Storeroom") and emerged with ample supplies of both compounds." As a result, I solved my little problem and sent a report to the journal before Christmas. Clearly Harvard ran second to Illinois in the ready availability of organic compounds.
The most striking feature of the Illinois department as I found it in the late twenties' was the youth of the faculty. When Dr. Noyes retired in 1926 he left a faculty of which only one, Dr. Hopkins, was more than 40 years old. Professor Noyes had had the wisdom to select these young teachers and the persuasiveness to induce them to come to Urbana. That he had done a tremendous job soon became evident. For the faculty of the twenties we can set down the following achievements.
Thirteen of them were starred in the 1938 edition of American Men of Science: Adams, Buswell, Clark, duVigneaud, Fuson, Hopkins, Keyes, Marvel, Noyes, Parr, Rodebush, Rose, and Shriner.
Five held the office of President of the American Chemical Society: Adams (1935), Bailar (1959), Marvel (1945), Noyes (1920), Parr (1929).
Award of the Nichols Medal went to Adams (1927), Fuson (1953), Marvel (1944) and Noyes (1908).
Winners of the Gibbs Medal are Adams (1936), duVigneaud (1956), Marvel (1951), Noyes (1920) and Rose (1952).
One of the highest honors in the eyes of Illinois is the award of the honorary doctorate by the University of Illinois. It was not made during Noyes lifetime; the first award, In fact, went to Adams in 1957. Then followed duVigneaud (1960), Rose (1962), Marvel (1963) and Fuson (1966).