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June 20, 2011
Volume 89, Number 25
p. 5

Archives Excursion

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Anyone with an interest in chemistry can get pleasantly lost in the C&EN Archives and old ACS journals. I did the week before last digging around for a particular tidbit of information and finding many, many more.

Senior Correspondent Steve Ritter wrote the lead News of the Week story in the June 13 issue of C&EN (page 7) announcing that MIT’s Robert S. Langer would receive the 2012 Priestley Medal. When Ritter interviewed him, Langer said he was honored “and a bit shocked” to learn that he had won the award, in part because he was the first chemical engineer to be so honored in something like 60 years.

Steve couldn’t remember the name of the chemical engineer that Langer had suggested might have been the last one to win the Priestley. It was late on Thursday afternoon, and I was waiting for final news pages to read so I started working through the names of Priestley Medal winners to find the missing chemical engineer.

In no particular order, I learned that Francis P. Garvan had received the 1929 Priestley Medal remotely from ACS President Irving Langmuir, who was at the fall ACS national meeting in Minneapolis. The News Edition of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry (forerunner of C&EN) reported: “The ceremonies were broadcast over Station WCCO of the Columbia system … and when it became known that Mr. Garvan would be unable to receive the medal personally, arrangements were made … to rebroadcast over WABC in New York. A special wire was opened between the two stations, and Mr. Garvan was enabled to hear the program through a receiving set at his sick bed in the Adirondacks, where he has been confined because of continued ill health during the past three years, said to be due partially to his strenuous efforts in behalf of independent American chemical industries during and following the World War.”

Garvan, who I learned later in the day was the only nonchemist ever to win the Priestley Medal, had served as the “Alien Property Custodian” during World War I. In that capacity, he sold 5,700 seized German chemical patents for $271,000 to the Chemical Foundation Inc., a company Garvan set up to administer those patents and for which he served as president. Unsurprisingly, these dual roles led to a legal challenge, which wasn’t resolved until 1924. “Chemical Foundation Triumphs in Federal Suit” was the title of the lead story in the Jan. 10, 1924, News Edition of I&EC.

“In a sixty-two-page decision which swept away every one of the Government’s major contentions as being without basis in fact or law, Federal Judge Hugh M. Morris, on January 3d, dismissed the Federal suit to set aside the sale of seized chemical and dye patents by the Alien Property Custodian to the Chemical Foundation, Inc.” Which is to say, by Garvan to Garvan.

Tangents are part of the fun in these kinds of excursions. The April 11, 1955, edition of C&EN reported on a talk by Robert E. Wilson, chairman of Standard Oil of Indiana, at an ACS national meeting in a story entitled “Technological Progress Threatened.” Wilson cited “eight ways in which our rapid progress is menaced,” C&EN reported. The magazine continued: “Not the least of the dangers, [Wilson] observed, is the misuse or neglect of some of the products of research itself. Television, for example, which has ‘made us a nation of spectators instead of participants,’ is contributing to the shortage of scientists and engineers, already of grave concern. ‘The bright young boy who used to build a homemade crystal radio or work with a chemical kit is now twirling the knobs on a TV set, watching terrible programs that distract him from constructive activities,’ Wilson asserted.”

By the way, Thomas Midgley Jr. was the chemical engineer who received the 1941 Priestley Medal that Langer mentioned to Ritter. Slightly more recently, MIT chemical engineering professor Warren K. Lewis received the 1947 Priestley Medal; a profile in the Sept. 29, 1947, issue of C&EN said Lewis “is recognized as the father of present-day chemical engineering.”

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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