Chemistry

Chemistry at Princeton may be divided, like Caeser's Gaul, into three parts: pre-World War I, between the wars, and post-World War II. But there was a continuity of spirit from the earliest years to the latest, suggested by Hugh Stott Taylor, chairman of the department from 1926 to 1951, with these words, at the dedication of the Frick Chemical Laboratory in 1929:

``May the vivifying influence of Maclean in the early days of Science at Princeton be an inspiration to those who follow him in tasks of teaching and seeking in Chemistry.''

Dean Taylor was referring, of course, to John Maclean, a medical doctor who in 1795 was appointed Professor of Chemistry, at that time a rare title in this country. Maclean carried the banner of Lavoisier's New Chemistry to the New World, and set up, in Nassau Hall, the first undergraduate chemistry laboratory in America. The following year a new chair was created, Professor of Chemistry and Natural History, and Dr. Maclean was its first incumbent, reflecting his competence in other sciences as well.

Because of its association with medicine, chemistry enjoyed a preeminence among the sciences throughout the nineteenth century, and was a required subject for all Princeton students. Toward the end of the century, when exploration of the nation's mineral resources became important, the faculty included mineralogists Henry B. Cornwall and Alexander H. Phillips, and the analyst LeRoy W. McCay, a student of Bunsen and discoverer of the thio-arsenates. McCay's colleagues included Lauder Jones in nitrogen chemistry, and George Hulett, who was an authority on standard cells, but whose greatest discovery, many thought, was Hugh Stott Taylor, whom he brought to Princeton in 1914.

This young Englishman (later knighted by both Pope Pius XII and Queen Elizabeth II), an inspiring teacher, a bold leader, and the recipient of innumerable honors for his pioneering work in catalysis, set the pattern for research and teaching at Princeton for the next half-century.

These were exciting times for research. The atmosphere in the laboratory was so thickly permeated by catalysis that it prompted the observation that Princeton was the only major American university that did not need to offer a course in catalysis, since the students were absorbing it by osmosis. Dean Taylor ascribed catalytic action to ``active spots'' on vast inert areas of catalyst surfaces, spots so few that they could be rendered inactive by tiny amounts of poisons. This concept also paved the way for other discoveries. The chain reaction theory of inhibition catalysis was elucidated and illustrated with rows of falling dominoes in Princeton in 1928, decades before the domino theory became a political byword.

During this period, Frick Laboratory became world-famous for researches in photochemistry and the mechanisms of chemical reactions. When heavy water was discovered in 1931, and used as a tool in these areas, there was more heavy water (about a test-tube full!) in Frick than anywhere else in the world.

Notable scholars attracted to Princeton during Taylor's chairmanship included N. Howell Furman, president of the American Chemical Society in 1950 and first recipient of its Fisher Award in Analytical Chemistry; the physical chemists Charles P. Smyth and Robert N. Pease, authorities in dipole moments and combustion kinetics, respectively; and the organic chemists Eugene Pacsu in carbohydrates, and Everett S. Wallis, who made notable contributions in the areas of molecular rearrangements and especially in hormone research with his pupil Lew Sarett (cortisones) and Nobel Prizeman Edward Kendall (thyroxin and cortisone). For fifteen years, from 1931 to 1946, Henry Eyring was a bright star in the chemistry department firmament developing the theory of absolute reaction rates and applying it to chemical and biological processes, viscosity, diffusion, and ion transport. A devout Mormon, Eyring left Princeton to become Dean of the University of Utah Graduate School. Arne Tiselius's work in electrophoresis and Willard Libby's in carbon dating were researches initiated in Frick Laboratory for which they were later to receive Nobel Prizes. Arthur Tobolsky's brilliant researches in the field of polymers were unfortunately cut short by his untimely death in 1972.

Lecture demonstrations have been a Princeton heritage since the days of Dr. Maclean. As early as 1795 the trustees allocated 2000 for additions to the library and for ``philosophical apparatus'' for Dr. Maclean's demonstrations. From Dr. Maclean's share of this generous allotment -- eight times the president's annual salary -- the sum of 75 cents had to be used to pay a fine that the College incurred for transporting Maclean's equipment from Philadelphia on a Sunday. Later, the trustees purchased extensive chemical apparatus from one of Maclean's successors, John Torrey~, another medical doctor, who lectured to the students on chemistry and natural history from 1830 to 1854. Princeton alumni will recall interesting lectures in organic chemistry by Fred Neher, Gregg Dougherty, and Everett Wallis and also the lively lecture demonstra~tions in freshman chemistry by William Foster, Alan Menzies, Charles Smyth, Hubert Alyea, and John Turkevich.

During World War II, Taylor and Furman journeyed daily to Columbia University, where Taylor was associate director of that branch of the Manhattan project. Charles Smyth was a member of the ALSOS mission sent to Europe by General Groves (``alsos'' is Greek for ``grove'') to search for German secret weapons. Under the Government Engineering Science and Management Training Program, all members of the department conducted, in Newark, Elizabeth, and Bound Brook, graduate courses for over 3,000 chemists in industry.

The postwar years brought radical changes to the department, because the making and manipulation of molecules now required expensive machines, costly to operate. The annual chemistry budget for operating expenses, exclusive of maintenance, which was $30,000 from 1920 to 1950, rose to nearly $2,000,000 by 1968, much of this for project research.

By the late 1950s Dean Taylor's colleagues had passed on; a new staff was assembled by Donald Hornig, who was chairman from 1958 to 1964. A large new wing, generous gift of an anonymous donor, doubled the research space in Frick in 1964, and housed a biochemistry faculty that later formed a separate department.

The chemistry department is not large; there are approximately twenty faculty, thirty seniors, and eighty graduate students. But it teaches nearly a thousand undergraduates each year, many of them premedical students and engineers. The postdoctoral research group grew from only a few in 1950 to o~ver sixty in 1974.

The current faculty, composed of experienced young men and distinguished older chemists, has a variety of interests. Whereas the group associated with Dean Taylor were most active in physical chemistry, a major new area of strength is now in organic and organometallic chemistry. Of the senior faculty, Professors Kurt Mislow, Edward Taylor, and Maitland Jones, Jr., are synthesizing new organic molecules, some mirror images of one another, some containing foreign atoms of sulfur, silicone, phosphorus, or thallium; and still others with unusual ring arrangements or special configurations to reveal significant functional groups. The physical chemists, Professors John Turkevich, Walter Kauzmann, Leland Allen, Donald McClure, Victor Laurie, and Robert Naumann, are investigating the nature and strengths of chemical bonds, submicroscopic molecular arrangements, catalytic effects, electronic and photochemical processes, proteins, and nuclear transmutations.

Modern instruments in the Frick Laboratory include numerous spectrometers (infrared, ultraviolet, microwave, Raman, and laser-Raman beams); also Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Electron Spin Resonance, and gas chromatographic, molecular beam, electron-microscope, mass spectrometer, and x-ray instruments. A variety of advanced computers are kept busy interpreting data, or suggesting novel methods for synthesizing new molecules.

From the researches of these chemists, their colleagues, and their students, there will doubtless issue, to return to the words of Dean Taylor,

``new findings, new discoveries, new ideas . . . to keep bright the tradition of progress in scientific truth which Maclean initiated at Princeton.''

Hubert N. Alyea


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

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