Chemical Engineering

Chemical Engineering was first offered at Princeton in 1922 as a special program administered jointly by the Department of Chemistry and the newly formed School of Engineering, which drew on existing courses in both fields. The senior professor of physical chemistry, Hugh Stott Taylor, watched over the fledgling program and groomed one of his graduate students, Joseph C. Elgin (whose undergraduate work at the University of Virginia was in chemical engineering) for its eventual leadership.

On receiving his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1929, Elgin was appointed Princeton's first instructor in chemical engineering, responsible for developing the new department's courses and facilities. He prepared himself by spending eight months as a guest of the M.I.T. chemical engineering department, then regarded as one of the best in the country. On his return he set up quarters in the old chemical laboratory, which housed the department until 1962, when it moved into its present home in Maclean Hall in the Engineering Quadrangle. One of Elgin,s first students, John C. Whitwell (B.S.E. 1931, Ch.E. 1932), became his colleague in 1932. Two years later Elgin and Whitwell were joined by Richard H. Wilhelm, who had just received his doctor's degree in chemical engineering at Columbia. This triumvirate laid the foundations of the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Their first task was to build from scratch an undergraduate curriculum in chemical engineering. In this they were later joined by Richard K. Toner, who came from New York University in 1942, and by Ernest F. Johnson, who came from the University of Pennsylvania in 1948. Undergraduate enrollment in the department grew steadily and at one time was larger than any other engineering department in the University. In 1946 a Ph.D. program was added to the original Ch.E. (later M.S.E.) program of study, and in April 1948, a student in the department earned the first doctor's degree ever granted in the School of Engineering.

By 1954, when Elgin gave up the chairmanship to become dean of the School of Engineering, the department had grown to an enrollment of 100 undergraduates and twenty-five graduate students, and a faculty of seven.

Further growth, particularly in graduate instruction and research, came under the leadership of the second chairman, Richard H. Wilhelm, with the added assistance of new members of the department, including Professors Leon Lapidus, William R. Schowalter, Robert C. Axtmann, and Bryce Maxwell. In 1966 the department was cited by the Cartter report of the American Council on Education as having the second most attractive chemical engineering graduate program in the country. When Professor Wilhelm died suddenly in 1968, fourteen years after he assumed the chairmanship, the faculty was twice as large as when he took over, there were three times as many graduate students, the department had expanded into chemical reactor engineering, transport phenomena, and control and optimization theory, and had been one of the first to make extensive use of computer technology.

The third chairman, appointed in 1968, was Leon Lapidus, a member of the Princeton faculty since 1953, widely known for his work in the application of computer techniques in chemical engineering, for which he was given the Professional Progress (1966) and William H. Walker (1973) Awards of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Two departmental areas of instruction and research developed during his chairmanship were the Polymer Science and Materials Program, directed by Bryce Maxwell, recipient of the 1976 Society of Plastics Engineers' international award, and the Fusion Reactor Technology Program, closely integrated with the Plasma Physics Laboratory, and directed by Ernest Johnson, who has been associated since 1955 with the laboratory's program of research directed toward controlled fusion. Under Lapidus, the department reached out into new areas of research such as biochemical engineering, energy conversion, and pollution control. The interest in pollution control was underlined in 1971 when the name of the Professorship of Chemical Engineering for Nuclear Studies, then held by Robert Axtmann, was changed to Chemical Engineering for Environmental Studies, with the agreement of the Mobil Oil Corporation, which was then supporting it. Professor Axtmann was first chairman of the University's Council on Environmental Studies and of the School of Engineering's topical program on Energy Conversion and Resources, which offers undergraduate engineering students an opportunity to supplement their departmental major with intensive study not only of energy conversion and energy resources, but also of the environmental impact of energy technologies.

In May 1977, the department suffered its second major loss in less than a decade with the sudden death of Leon Lapidus. Arrangements were made for Ernest Johnson to serve as chairman through the academic year 1977-1978, and for William R. Schowalter, associate dean of the School of Engineering since 1972, to assume the chairmanship in 1978.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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