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

1947: Warren K. Lewis (1882–1975)

Warren K. Lewis, the first chemical engineer to receive the Priestley Medal, was a major force in the development of chemical engineering as a discipline as well as a formidable teacher. Often referred to as the father of modern chemical engineering, he was, when teaching, more like a drill sergeant than a father. Despite his demeanor—in fact perhaps because of it—he was much loved by his students.

Lewis was born in Delaware. He graduated in chemistry with a chemical engineering option from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1905. Following a year as a lab assistant, he did what many up-and-comers in chemistry did and went to Germany to study for his doctorate. After receiving his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Breslau in 1908, Lewis did a brief stint in a leather tannery, but he was irresistibly drawn to teaching. He joined the faculty of MIT in 1910 as an assistant professor and was promoted to full professor in 1914. From 1920 to 1929 he was the first head of the new chemical engineering department. He was a member of the faculty until his death in 1975 at age 92.

Working under contract to Standard Oil of New Jersey, he and Edwin R. Gilliland developed modern fluid catalytic cracking using a continuously circulating powdered zeolite catalyst suspended in petroleum vapors. The first full-scale plant using this technology went on-line in 1942. By 1947, the year of his Priestley Medal, C&EN reported that this “concept alone today is represented by more than $100 million in plant investment.” Today, almost all petroleum cracking uses fluidized beds, and many other reactions are carried out in similar systems. It is now a multi-billion-dollar technology.

Lewis also made important contributions to the Manhattan Project, working with James B. Conant (1944 Priestley Medalist) and George Kistiakowski (1972 Priestley Medalist) in assessing the military value of uranium.

He was also a writer. His book “Principles of Chemical Engineering,” first published in 1923, was a milestone of progress that could “hardly be overestimated,” reported Audrey McFayden in the pages of C&EN (Sept. 29, 1947, page 2814). “It conveyed to the infant profession the results of pioneering investigation, it gave the first adequate concept of the scope of the profession, and it defined and applied the fundamental engineering principles.”

But it is as a teacher that Lewis is most remembered. According to reminiscences collected by some of his MIT chemical engineering students in the 1930s and presented to Lewis on his retirement, “Sometimes Doc would come into the classroom, take off his coat, roll it into a bundle, deposit it, and turn to a student with a riveting glare and ask a broad question. To a poor answer he might reply, ‘You damned dumbbell.’”

In the biographical memoir of Lewis, published in 1996 by the National Academies, Hoyt C. Hottel wrote that Lewis “shouted from a raised platform in a large classroom: ‘Can anyone here name a single infallible law of Nature?’ Silence, then a pointed finger, ‘You there, first man in the first row! Can’t you name one?’ Pause. Then, ‘Conservation of matter.’ Doc, ‘Cosmic rays blow your law of conservation to Kingdom Come. Next man!’ Finally the pointing finger got to the teller of this story, who blurted out, ‘The law of constant proportion.’ Doc, ‘Did you ever hear of isotopes?’ Then he leaned down and forward until his face was within 12 inches of the student’s and shouted with such intensity that his mouth was not under proper control, ‘Isotopes are things that spit at the law of constant proportion.’” The person relating the story wasn’t angry; instead, he “thanked Doc for a lesson never forgotten.”—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