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C&EN Special Issue: 85th Anniversary Of The Priestley Medal - Volume 86, Number 14, April 7, 2008

1929: Francis P. Garvan (1875–1937)

Introducing the Priestley Medal Award recipient at the 78th ACS national meeting in Minneapolis, then ACS President Irving Langmuir described Francis P. Garvan as “a man who has taken a part in the advancement of chemistry in America greater than would have been possible to any professional chemist.” An attorney, Garvan was and remains the only nonscientist to have received the medal.

An 1897 graduate of New York Law School, Garvan served for several years as a district attorney in the state. Just after World War I, he took a position in the office of the Alien Property Custodian. This government office had been recently established to manage German property seized by the U.S. after the war. In this capacity, Langmuir said, Garvan “learned the importance of chemical progress to mankind at large.”

During the war German companies held a virtual monopoly on the production of synthetic organic chemicals, specifically dyestuffs and related pharmaceutical products. One product, Salvarsan—the only effective antisyphilitic—became virtually impossible to obtain after supplies of these chemicals were cut off by Germany.

To ensure that people in the U.S. would have access to these compounds, Garvan and his colleague Alexander Mitchell Palmer, a fellow Alien Property Custodian, established the Chemical Foundation. The foundation was incorporated as a trustee of the U.S. chemical industry for the purpose of holding patents, trademarks, and other types of intellectual property related to the chemical industry. Its purpose was to Americanize the industry, eliminate alien interests hostile to the industry, and work for the advancement of the chemical and allied industries. Under its charter it was obliged to grant nonexclusive patent rights of foreign inventions to U.S. companies in exchange for a fee.

The foundation’s coffers supported chemistry in general and the American Chemical Society in particular. For example, the Chemical Foundation subsidized the publication of the Journal of Physical Chemistry and the Journal of Chemical Education for years, and it saved Chemical Abstracts from having to severely curtail its publication after the war due to financial woes. The foundation published a series of books on chemistry in agriculture, industry, and medicine and distributed them at or below cost to thousands of libraries, schools, and educators.

The foundation also had to use its funds to defend itself. In an effort to regain control of the German drug and dye patents sold to the Chemical Foundation, then U.S. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty, of the Warren G. Harding Administration, started criminal proceedings against the foundation and Garvan in 1922—charging conspiracy among industrialists and government officials. At the time, several members of Congress believed that the foundation and its purchase of seized German patents had been blatantly illegal and contrary to the spirit of the Trading with the Enemies Act.

In legal actions that wouldn’t be finished until 1924, Garvan asserted that German patents had been written with the intent to conceal and suppress advancement in scientific information, so what the foundation bought wasn’t very valuable. He called the patents “useless unless American business spent millions of dollars to find out … what the patents concealed.” The case was decided in the favor of Garvan and the foundation. Daugherty ended up embroiled in a scandal that involved kickbacks from bootleggers and was forced to resign in 1926.

Despite it all, Garvan and his wife became philanthropists who gave about $200,000 for work on curing the common cold. They also established an essay contest in 1923 and ran it for seven years, giving more than a quarter of a million dollars in four-year college scholarships to encourage the study of science. In addition to their chemical philanthropy, the Garvans donated 10,000 art objects to Yale University.

Unable to attend the Priestley ceremonies because of illness, Garvan listened to a radio broadcast of the festivities. Accepting the award for him, William W. Buffum, Chemical Foundation treasurer, told the audience, “Suffice it for me to say that 12 years of closest cooperation with Mr. Garvan, through periods of darkest outlook followed by periods of most encouraging success, have convinced me that this is one of the proudest moments in his life.”—Linda Raber

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award