Chemistry at Illinois University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

My Sixty-Five Years of Chemistry

By C. S. "Speed" Marvel (1894 - 1988)

Presented at the University of Illinois in March 1976. Note: The mid-1970s were a period of high unemployment, and job opportunities for chemists were extremely limited. Some of Professor Marvel's comments at the end of his talk address this issue.

I was first introduced to Chemistry as a freshman at Illinois Wesleyan University in the fall of 1911. My uncle who had been a high school teacher had advised me to take this subject if I expected to be a farmer since he felt the next generation of farmers was going to need scientific knowledge to get the most out of their work. My professor in Chemistry was a young Ph.D. from the University of Illinois named Alfred W. Homberger. He was a very pleasant person, much interested in chemistry and very much interested in his students, so I came into the field in a most friendly atmosphere.

Professor Homberger had been in classes of Professor Louis Kahlenberg as an undergraduate at Wisconsin. Kahlenberg was one of the last skeptics to admit the ionic theory might be useful and this attitude had been transferred to his students. Homberger taught the theory but he was not yet too sure it was a useful one. The Chemistry for beginners was mainly descriptive material with mathematics limited to problems of simple proposition, so the course was not difficult to understand and the facts presented were interesting to learn. The second semester laboratory part of the course was the old style qualitative inorganic analysis and solving the unknowns was really a lot of fun. Thus, my introduction to Chemistry made it a fun course which the subject has always continued to be for me.

As a sophomore I took Analytical Chemistry which was a bit of a chore and less fun than the beginning course. But, as a Junior in Organic Chemistry I found what I really enjoyed doing, synthesizing organic compounds. I spent most of my spare time in the organic laboratory doing synthesis and as I recall I did about 65 preparations during the year. In this way I became familiar with many chemicals and especially their odors. So, I accumulated a set of memories of smells which proved useful to me in later organic work. My nose was my infrared spectroscope for determining structures.

As a senior I was an assistant in the General Chemistry laboratory and I did a small piece of research under Dr. Homberger. About the middle of my senior year he asked me if I would accept a $250 scholarship to go to Illinois to study chemistry as a graduate student the next year. I was still expecting to return to the farm on graduation and there was still very little opportunity for jobs for chemists in industry. I liked the idea of further study and my father said "If someone wants to pay you to go to school perhaps you'd better do it. You might get a good job out of that." So, I planned for a try at graduate work which to me was a very unknown field as there had been no experience of that sort in the college where I studied.

In 1915 when I entered graduate school the chemical industry had begun to become a bit active in America. Germany was the center of chemical manufacture and research at that time. The war in Europe had started in 1914 and the flow of chemicals to America was cut down. So, attempts were being made to start the industry in this country. But, up to then all laboratory chemicals and laboratory glassware used in American laboratories had come from abroad. There was beginning to be a demand for chemists and as a result the courses in chemistry at the universities were beginning to have much increased enrollment. This was especially true at the undergraduate level.

When I registered for my first semester at Illinois, David Kinley was Dean of the Graduate School. He looked over my credentials and apparently was not greatly impressed for he pointed out that as a scholar I needed to earn a masters degree in one year and he said, "You apparently do not know very much chemistry so I'll have to give you an overload of work to catch up." Accordingly, my first semester of work consisted of 5 units instead of the standard 4 and of this, 4 units were laboratory courses. This really put pressure on me and I had long hours in the laboratory.

It was during this year that I acquired a nickname which has stayed with me since. As I worked rather late at night in the laboratory and studying I usually was late to bed. As a result I slept as late as I could and still get to the breakfast table before the dining room door closed at 7:30. My fellow inhabitants decided that was the only time I ever hurried and they tied the name "Speed" onto me and it has stuck.

One of my courses during that hectic first semester was qualitative organic analysis with Derick and Kamm. Here my experience as a junior with a wide variety of organic compounds proved to be a great help for I could classify most of my unknowns by their odor. This did not especially please Kamm. I recall he gave me my last unknown mixture with the remark, "I don't believe you can identify this by odor." I told him it would not be too hard for I could smell a low aliphatic alcohol, a volatile fatty acid and an aromatic amine. These all proved to be present but I had not smelled one constituent, water, which was also present.

The shortage of research chemicals in America led Professor Derick to start a group of graduate students to work during the early summer of 1916 making research chemicals for the needs of his men and others in the department for their research programs. I tried to get him to give me a place in the group but was told those jobs were being saved for the good students and I did not qualify. Before the end of that summer Derick had decided to leave the university to become research director for National Aniline and Chemical Corporation in their big push on dye chemistry.

That summer also saw Illinois lose its top man in inorganic chemistry, Clarence Balke, to the Pfanstiehl Company in Chicago. The top professor in Physical Chemistry, Edward Washburn, left the department to become head of the university Ceramics Department. One of the men in the Department of Industrial Chemistry took a position in another university. It was a time of major change in the department to lose four out of a group of about twice that many well established men.

Organic chemistry fared very well in the turnover because Professor Noyes was Department Head and persuaded Roger Adams to come to Urbana to look after the organic group. I think Adams rather reluctantly left Harvard for this job but found it attractive at Urbana and stayed with the university to complete his career in chemistry.

The chemical industry grew greatly during 1916 and 1917. The biggest growth was in the dye industry which had before the war been centered almost entirely in Germany. There were many new jobs for chemists and there were many university chemists who transferred to industry. Also, there were jobs for graduating B. S. chemists in great numbers. As a result more good students turned to chemistry as a major in college and universities. I recall that Oliver Kamm advised me once that really good B. S. men did not need to do graduate work because there were so many good industrial opportunities for them without the additional training. An indication of the growth in the profession is shown by the increase in membership in the American Chemical Society from 7,417 in 1915 to 10,603 in 1917.

The shortage of special research organic chemicals was so severe in 1916 that Adams increased the size of the organic preparation group at Illinois in the summer of 1917. I had a chance to get into this work then. The war demands for special chemicals began to be serious and the various government groups needed materials, especially for the new chemical warfare which had been introduced by the Germans. I started working on the preparation program in June of 1917 and kept at it full time until the end of the summer session in 1919. We had two or three men working during the year and as many as 15 or 20 during the summer session. Many of the requests for chemicals were for prospective chemical warfare agents and it was quite a task to make such materials in the university laboratories which had rather poor ventilating hoods.

The work became so important that the Eastman Kodak Company was persuaded to set up a synthetic laboratory. They sent Hans Clarke to Illinois for about 2 months to study our setup before he returned to Rochester to set up his synthetic group. Even after Kodak took up the work we continued to make chemicals during the summer session for our own research work and to supply special materials to Kodak for their dispensation. It was excellent experience for a research organic chemist to get some idea of the expense of the materials he had to work with.

After the war began in America in 1917 many of the university people were transferred to Washington to work on chemical warfare problems. Adams became a Major in that Unit. He kept a close contact with us at Illinois and used us to furnish needed chemicals on a rush basis. We had many experiences with toxic materials which really led us to feel they were much less dangerous than they had been generally regarded to be. Another service which the preparation laboratory served was to supply the steel makers with the reagent needed to analyze nickel steel. We had a small unit set up in the laboratory when once it got to operating produced about two pounds a day of this critical reagent. Two juniors, Norman Krase and Ivar Hultman, were the operators at the beginning of this work. Krase went on to be a university staff member of Chemical Engineering and finally an industrial chemist. Hultman became the chief executive officer of Eastman Kodak Co. So, the experience apparently proved useful as well as did the product.

With the end of the war in 1918 there was a definite slackening in the chemical industry as it reorganized its program to peace time. Quite a few laboratories released chemists and there was a short period of readjustment when it was not easy for chemists to find good work. The membership of the American Chemical Society shows this as there was a drop from 15,582 members in 1920 to 14,318 in 1921. Then it began to grow again but it was 1927 before it was back up to a membership of 15,188.
I was able to go back to full time graduate work in 1919 and completed my degree work in 1920. I had always thought I did not want to teach but rather to work in industry. However, in 1920 industrial jobs were indeed difficult to find and the only job offered me was an instructorship at Illinois in the organic group. That turned out to be a better job than I had expected because my immediate supervisor, Oliver Kamm, left to be research director at Parke Davis and Co., so there was an opportunity for advancement for me.

There was no shortage of chemistry students but rather an increase because of industrial conditions. We had a custom of having all seniors do a piece of research at that time so in the fall of 1920 when I first took up my duties as a teacher I also had 6 seniors in research to keep me busy.

I well remember my first class in organic qualitative analysis that year. In it were Wallace Carothers who went on to be the number one polymer chemist America has produced; Samuel McElvain who became Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin; George Graves who played a very important part later in the plutonium plant at Hanford, Washington in World War II; and many other men who became leaders in their fields.

The increase in students made it necessary to add new staff members to take care of the organic classes. One man came in 1921 and stayed two years. In 1924 Carothers and John R. Johnson were added to the organic faculty. These were excellent additions and we had a wonderful time working together. We had an evening seminar during most of their stay at which we discussed the current chemical problems which were debatable. In addition to the three of us we invited a few of the good graduate students to participate. We would take sides on a problem and try to present the pros and cons on each topic trying to come up with an opinion covering the doubtful theories of the day.

Some of the factors that made Illinois a strong school in organic chemistry should be recorded. We had good students. This, in part, was due to the close friendships of our staff members and those of the other middle west schools. We tended to send our good seniors to places like Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Chicago, Nebraska, Cornell, Rochester, Penn State, etc., and in turn they would send good students to us. The other important factor was the fellowship program which we had available to help these good students get their degrees. At one time we had nearly 50 graduate fellowships supported by industrial companies and the university. We had 10 extra good fellowships for several years supported by the Chemical Foundation from money derived from the licensing of German patents seized during the first war. We not only got top students from the big schools but we also got them from friends at smaller schools in the middle west who learned that we were taking good care of the men they sent to us. Moreover, there was excellent comradery between the faculty and the students. All of these factors contributed to the success of the Illinois organic group. The experience our chemists got in the "summer preps" laboratory was also a factor in their later success which increased the demand for our product.

In 1927 Carothers left us to join the Harvard faculty and Johnson became Professor of Organic chemistry at Cornell. For a semester the teaching and research load fell on Adams and myself. Then Fuson and Shriner were added to the staff and the four of us worked together in a most congenial way with a wonderful group of excellent graduate students. Times were good and jobs in chemistry were plentiful. Even when the depression of 1929-30 came along chemistry suffered much less than other professions. It was still readily possible to find good positions for our Ph.Ds even though salaries were impaired a bit. At the university we took two cuts in our pay during the darkest days of the depression but chemistry kept going ahead and almost none of the chemists who had been with us were let out of their jobs. The ACS membership kept climbing steadily from 1920-1935 in spite of recession conditions. In 1939 there began a tremendous growth in membership and it doubled over the next 10 years.

During the early years the chemists working for Ph.D. degrees were usually not married, did not have cars and actually spent most of their waking hours in the laboratory. It really became their second home. I wouldn't say that all of that time was devoted to hard work but most of it was. There was still time for some side play which made life pleasant and interesting. Some accidents occurred because safety regulations had not yet come to university laboratories, and it is a wonder there were not more. One accident proved to be extremely useful. Vorhees was given some chloroplatinic acid to make a platinum catalyst to study reductions and he managed to spill it on the rubberoid floor of room 217. In collecting the spilled chemical he also got considerable contamination of organic material from the flooring material. He didn't want to admit to Adams that he had been so careless so he decided to clean up the platinum salt by fusing it with sodium nitrate. The result of that experiment was the Adams platinum oxide catalyst which has been so useful since, in the hydrogenation of organic materials.

There was even time for a bit of horseplay now and then. In my laboratory we had a series of minor accidents and the boys were all getting jumpy. One lad named Halley decided to startle the others by loading a tin can with ether vapor and striking a match in it. The resulting explosion blew the can into the room where the others were at work. It wasn't quite as funny for them as for Halley. So they caught him and dunked him in a large sink in room 219 Chemistry. The hydrolysis of Halley became a classic story for the lab.

In the spring of 1928 I was invited to become a consultant to the DuPont Experimental Station. My selection was due to the kindness of Roger Adams. The DuPont Company wanted him as a consultant and wanted him to travel to Wilmington every month to talk on their problems. He objected to so much travel and after discussion suggested they hire two Illinois men, one to come to visit one month, the other the next. In between visits they could discuss the problems at home. Stein, who was then Director of the Station agreed and asked Roger to name the second man. He named me and in order to get Adams on his list, Stein took me, an unknown, as far as he was concerned. This was a very fortunate occurrence for me for it has been a long and fruitful association which continues.

After a slight slowdown in industry during the 1929-30 period, Chemistry again boomed. The first synthetic rubber (neoprene) was manufactured and the first truly synthetic fiber came into being; both were discoveries of Carothers who had left Harvard for the DuPont Company after a year there. The plastics industry developed rapidly. Many other major discoveries were made and the chemical industry grew to be the foremost industry in America.

Then war in Europe broke out again and it was obvious that America would sooner or later be involved. The Office of Scientific Research and Development and the National Research and Development Committee were set up in late 1941. The universities furnished the men for these agencies and most university laboratories accepted contracts to study problems related to the needs of the Department of Defense. Adams had a very important part in the direction of the National Defense and Research Committee and was not often in Urbana during the war years.

In December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Hawaii, and we were into the war, the most critical chemical problem became the solution to the rubber shortage which resulted when our far Eastern supplies were cut off. As I had become a bit of a polymer chemist during the years 1930-1940, I was drafted to help in the synthetic rubber program. That was a very exciting and successful government program. The major rubber companies, some of the oil companies and many universities pooled their research efforts and in about one year's time a usable synthetic rubber was being manufactured and used in smaller types of tires. In 1945 at the end of hostilities in Europe I went with a group of rubber chemists to visit the German rubber industry and to see what innovations had been made by them in the butadiene-styrene rubbers. There we learned of a new rapid polymerization technique known as redox-polymerization which they were developing in the hope of getting a continuous process for synthetic rubber. We adapted this process to low temperature polymerization and thus improved our synthetic product so that it is a most useful general purpose rubber. Before the government program on synthetic rubber ended, two of the industrial laboratories developed synthetic methods which enabled them to reproduce the natural polyisoprene rubber which had almost all of the useful properties of the rubber which trees produce.

I would like to record that this joint effort was a most cordial one. The competing rubber companies forgot their competitive spirit and cooperated in getting the job done. They accepted help from the universities when we could give it and, when the job was done and the plants were sold to industry, the entire program was reportedly in the black. All production costs and research costs had been recovered by the government.

In the war years there were two other jobs that I helped with. In the early days before the rubber program I helped organize the program on synthetics for the National Defense Research Committee under Adams. Most of this was work on potential toxic materials of one sort or another. It was a very extensive program and required much time but my part was mainly in writing contracts and setting up our program. After the rubber program started I was out of this phase and back into Chemistry, much to my relief. I did get drafted later to help the malaria research program of the Committee on Medical Research and this was an interesting and successful program although again I was more an administrator than chemist.

After the disruption of university research by the war years it took a little readjusting to get back to teaching and research in the university atmosphere. I personally had some doubt that I would be able to get a good program going again. But I was asked by the Materials Laboratory of the Air Force to consider helping them develop some high temperature resistant polymers and this has proved to be an interesting and lasting problem. Most of the university research in the post war era was financed by some of the government agencies. Gradually the fellowships which industry had supplied in prewar days were withdrawn and it was felt the government money would take care of the needs of the universities.

With the new synthetic rubber program, the big surge in synthetic textiles, the growth of the automobile industry and its needs for new materials, the chemical industry profited in the fifties and sixties. Research laboratories expanded and new ones started up. The demand for chemists reached new peaks. Hence the schools were loaded with students and more faculty were added to most staffs. New graduate schools were started. But industry took care of all available personnel and things were rosy.

However, the business cycle slumped. Companies made less profits. Research began to be curtailed and abandoned by some of the major chemical companies. Money became scarce for new projects. For the first time since the industry got its big start in the 1914-15 period chemists were more plentiful than jobs. The pages of the C&E News became filled with good chemists looking for work. Earlier depressions had created minor job crises but never had there been a time when a good candidate could not find a place. The flow of money from the government agencies also slowed down markedly. The new graduate schools in some cases closed down. Students in the strictly chemical studies in undergraduate work fell off. Fewer teachers were needed so that further complicated the market for chemists.

In this slump in Chemistry there are still a few active fields. Biochemistry has grown and generally expanded; Analytical Chemistry had found increasing applications in the environmental studies. In the synthetic field, Agricultural Chemicals has prospered. New insecticides, new herbicides, new plant growth stimulants have been produced and used increasingly to promote the production of needed food. Companies operating in these fields are still looking for good men but the total number of jobs is far less then it was at the peak of the industry. At this time it is difficult to foresee just when a turnaround may come. But if research laboratories do continue to function, new materials will flow from them and there will be a rebirth of the industry.

Both the universities and the chemical industry must take part of the blame for the sudden overproduction of chemists. Industry has been demanding more chemists and universities expanded to produce them. The quality of chemists dipped some, I'm sure, because many students went into the field expecting it to be a profitable one rather than because it was the one they really enjoyed. It still is necessary, to be a good chemist, that one find fun in the job. There are many professions that pay better but few where the worker can enjoy his daily job as much as a good research man can.

I am confident that Chemistry will again be a profession where one can work, make a respectable living and have fun on the job.

"Carl Shipp Marvel", by Nelson Leonard, National Academies Press, pp. 232-265.