In Charles’ own words:
When I was starting out my chemical career in the 1950’s, I was mainly interested in the journals and attending national, regional, and local meetings. Now retired for 17 years, I depend on C&EN news articles to try to keep abreast of the many developments which seem ever more and more amazing as time goes by.
As I look back over the past 60 years, I wish I had joined ACS five years earlier when I got my BS in chemistry in 1952 from the University of Oklahoma and then I would now have been a member for 65 years. Instead I waited until 1957 when I got my PhD from Ohio State with Harold Shechter and was headed to NYC for national ACS meeting. At that time I was working for Owens-Corning Fiberglas who generously paid all my expenses to that meeting. Later meetings after I had academic positions were never so well paid for by my employers.
I look backwards through the decades to the 1950’s at the recent advances in chemistry especially biochemistry, then the earlier marriage of computers and instruments, the switch to digital, the availability of MS and NMR for organic chemists, and even the earlier simple continuous wave proton NMR which in itself revolutionized organic chemistry. The 1950’s big development was organic mechanisms which continues to be my first love. And before I retired, I was gratified to see one of my favorite reactions (Birch reduction) had finally made it into organic textbooks. One of the highlights of my career was the 5 weeks my wife and I spent in Japan as visiting faculty at Kobe-Gakuin University.
A practical application of organic mechanism occurred when I worked for Phillips Petroleum for two summers (1952 & 1953). They were experimenting with making polyethylene by a catalytic process. Initially their polymer differed from that commercially available in that it had higher density, was more opaque and was brittle. Why there was such a difference was very puzzling. It turned out that the commercial polyethylene was produced by a free radical process with a primary methylene radical at the end of the chain. Occasionally that terminal radical would reach around and abstract a hydrogen atom from a carbon atom 5 or 6 down the chain producing a more stable secondary radical which would continue the polymerization. This resulted in a polymer that had branching. The catalytic process however produced a linear polymer without branching. By simply introducing small amounts of other alkenes into the catalytic process, branching could be accomplished with improvements in the physical properties of the product.
Incidentally, it was at Phillips that I learned one could get a measurement of the molecular mass of a polymer like polyethylene by measuring the viscosity of a solution of the polymer versus the solvent. (We used Hot tetralin). Small molecules have little effect on viscosity while polymers have a large effect.
My industrial experience educated me as to the practical economic reality of applied chemistry. Fiber glass competes with everything from saw dust to cork to rubberized horse hair. Converting ethylene which then was 3 or 4 cents a pound into polyethylene worth 23 or 24 cents a pound was a good way to create wealth. No one seemed to predict that decades later plastic would be a major global pollutant and trash problem.
My wife and I arrived at the University of Pacific in the Fall of 1963. UOP had survived the difficult days for a private college of WW II and had expanded its programs greatly in the 5 years or so before we arrived. It had a law school in Sacramento, a dental school in S.F., and had started cluster colleges and a school of pharmacy on Stockton campus. The increase in programs and number of students had not yet been matched by increase in physical facilities. The chemistry department, the biology department and the school of pharmacy were all jammed into one building (Weber Hall). Some of the desks were so old they still had the ink well holes. Today it is gratifying that those academic units each have good facilities which are larger than Weber Hall. (And no more ink wells). The Pharmacy school has grown from being small and the newest in USA to one of the largest. It has expanded and includes Physical Therapy, speech and hearing, dental clinic, and dental hygiene programs. It also supplies most of the students taking chemistry courses.
I took my first chemistry course in 1948 at a junior college while I was still a senior in high school and was 16. I had always been curious about chemistry because my father and two of my uncles were chemists. The course caused me to look at the physical world around me in a completely different way. So I was hooked. I think chemists choose chemistry not because it is easy which it is not but because it is hard and challenging. I am glad I picked Chemistry for my career. Chemistry has been and continues to be a very interesting, dynamic, always challenging and exciting field with both theoretical and practical applications. Never a dull moment and I think that the best is still to come. I wonder what chemistry will be like 65 years from now?
The ACS is indeed a remarkable organization which often is not fully appreciated. It has resources for a wide range of chemists and throughout their lives: from student affiliates to retirees, from industry to academia, from lab technicians to Nobel prize awardees, from high school chemistry teachers to research university professors and everyone in between.