History of the Department of Chemistry
The first chair of the Department of Chemistry, Neil E. Gordon, at Wayne State University founded the Gordon Research Conferences.
Learn more about Neil E. Gordon
Early days of the chemistry department at Wayne State University
- Chapter I: A brief history of the university
- Chapter II: The formative years (1917-1930)
- Chapter III: The Depression years (1930-1940)
- Chapter IV: The Gordon years (1942-1949)
A brief history of the university1
Much of the early history of the university took place in the building now known as "Old Main". Old Main was constructed in 1896 to house Detroit Central High School which soon acquired the reputation of being one of the best and largest high schools in the nation. At that time the city limits of Detroit lay only a mile or so north of the school at what is now Woodward Avenue and the Boulevard. The area surrounding Old Main was an upper-middle-class neighborhood consisting of beautiful brick houses, a few of which still remain standing in the area.
The only colleges in the city of Detroit at that time were the Detroit College of Medicine, then a private school, and the Detroit Normal School for teachers. In 1913, the College of Medicine asked that a one-year pre-medical curriculum be set up as a post-graduate course at the high school. This was adopted and upon completion, the students were admitted to the medical school. In those days the pre-med curriculum was only one year! In 1917 the A.M.A. began requiring two years of pre-medical credits and to accommodate this, the high school increased its curriculum and broadened it into other fields. At this point, the Detroit Junior College was organized and a 22-page catalog was published listing the courses available, among these were six courses in Chemistry.
The Junior College was very successful. By 1923 the number of courses had doubled and 1400 students were enrolled in the College. At this point, it was decided to convert the college into a four-year, degree-granting institution and it was called, "The Detroit City College". In 1925, City College graduated its first class of 62 students. The period 1925-1930 was marked by rapid growth both in the number of students, from five thousand to ten thousand, and in faculty from 70 to 150. In 1926 a new Central High School building was constructed at another site, the high school students moved, and Old Main became occupied solely by the College.
The 1920's known as the "roaring twenties" was marked by prosperity and rapid growth. The college, which was part of the Detroit city school system was supervised and financed by the Detroit Board of Education. The tax base of the city was constantly increasing and no financial problems were encountered. I might mention that the only source of revenue then, were taxes on real-estate. There were no sales taxes nor income taxes, yet revenues were adequate to run the entire city government and to support a first-class school system (How did they do it?). In 1930 the College of Medicine, the School of Pharmacy, previously taught at Cass Tech High School, the newly formed Law School, and the Detroit Normal School were all incorporated into Detroit City College. There was some talk at that time about forming a university, but this was postponed and the institution was called "Colleges of the City of Detroit".
The formation of a university in 1933 was brought to a climax by a clash between the College of Liberal Arts and the School of Education. When the various colleges were amalgamated in 1930 the School of Education became a department in the College of Liberal Arts. With the onset of the depression, at that time, finances became tight and Dean Wilford Coffey set about eliminating positions he considered duplications in the Department of Education. This was strongly opposed by Professor Waldo Lessenger of the Department of Education. A great furor arose and the Detroit Board of Education, the governing body, was beset by advocates of both sides. It was realized then that order could be restored only by someone having higher authority than either Coffey or Lessenger. After consulting with representatives of the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities, an accrediting body, the Board decided to form a university with Dr. Charles L. Spain, deputy superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, as the chief officer. In the spring of 1933 papers were drawn up by the Board and in August it announced the formation of a university. At this point Dean Coffey resigned and was replaced by Albertus Darnell, his assistant dean, the department of Education became the College of Education with Lessenger as dean. Frank Cody, Superintendent of Schools, was designated as President of the new university with Dr. Charles L. Spain as Executive Vice President. Actually, Cody had very little to do in running the university, this was done entirely by Spain. As his assistant, Dr. Spain chose a young professor from the English department, Dr. David D. Henry, who later became President of the university.
Now that a university had been formed there remained the problem of finding a name for it. Any name containing "Detroit" was eliminated in order to avoid confusion with the already existing private school, The University of Detroit. Likewise, names containing "Michigan" were eliminated to avoid confusion with the universities at Lansing and Ann Arbor. Finally, in January the name, Wayne University was chosen since Detroit lay in Wayne County, which was named after "Mad" Anthony Wayne, a Major-General in George Washington's army during the Revolutionary war.
The formation of Wayne University occurred in the midst of the Great Depression. Since this had a great impact on the new university, I would like to say a few things about the Depression. In the late 1920s, the economy was beginning to falter (like today, 1990). It was brought to a climax by the stock market crash of 1929. Each year after that, conditions worsened and more and more people were unemployed. Prices and wages fell, many creditors defaulted on their debts, tax revenues fell drastically and the new university was in difficult shape financially. Salaries were cut by ten percent and a year later by another ten percent. A month was cut from the school year. Very little money was available for supplies. In February 1933 many banks in Michigan were about to fail, so the governor ordered all banks closed. A week later President Roosevelt proclaimed a nation-wide bank holiday. For several weeks there was an acute cash shortage. Practically all commerce came to a stand-still. Finally, the banks reopened but only limited withdrawals could be made.
A new crisis for the university arose soon thereafter. The Detroit City Council, which controlled the allocation of tax monies, proposed that the university be made self-supporting and that no funds be allocated to it. When this news became known on campus all classes were canceled and the entire student body was bused down to the City Hall where the Council was in session. The students engulfed the entire City Hall and there were worries that parts of the old building may collapse. The Council suspended their deliberations and assured the students that the matter would be reconsidered. This and pressures from other anticipation warrants, a form of money which the city printed and was known as "script." Script could be used to pay city taxes but had no other value, hence it was not readily accepted by merchants. By 1936 the Depression eased somewhat and finances, although tight, were no longer in a crisis level. The city script was redeemed, a portion of the salary cuts restored, and things seemed to be getting back to normal. But just as things seemed to be improving another event occurred which would drastically affect the university. The War had begun in Europe, and the Japanese were invading China. (1939)
The War had the positive effect of bringing the Depression to an end. Increased demand for materials in Europe and re-armament in America stimulated the economy. Enrollment and financial support for the university increased, new faculty were hired and money for supplies and equipment was increased. Money was even allocated to buy land adjoining Old Main in view of expanding the campus. This was a wise move n 1940 the European war proliferated, the United States became apprehensive and the draft, also known as Selective Service, was instituted. At first, men ages 21-40 were required to register and of them, only a few were actually inducted. This had no great impact on college enrollments since college students were deferred. With the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States became actively involved in the war and the draft age was broadened to ages 19 through 44, but college students were still deferred. In 1943, as the war worsened, college students were no longer deferred and the draft was extended to 18-year-olds. The male student population dwindled and those remaining were truly "the halt, the lame, and the blind." The female student population also declined since many women were working in the war industries. It was a dreary, uncertain time. Gasoline, food, and clothing were rationed. Long lines formed at the meat counters only to find them empty when they arrived. Much like the military instituted the Army Specialized Training Program known as A.S.T.P. As part of their basic training qualified inductees were sent to participating schools and took special courses under the supervision of the military. A group of several hundred were assigned to Wayne where I taught them courses in beginning Chemistry. This program lasted until the spring of 1944 when it was suddenly abandoned. The need for manpower at the front became acute, and with very little combat training these men were thrown into the front lines. Students who returned after the war told me that casualties were heavy. The year 1944 was the most depressing of the war years. A strong counter-offensive by the Germans, the Battle of the Bulge, brought heavy casualties. The student population at Wayne dropped to an all-time low. But suddenly it was over. The German resistance collapsed and on May 7, 1945, the Germans surrendered. In August the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and on September 2, 1945, the Japanese surrendered.
The post-war period marked the beginning of a new era for the university; a period of rapid growth and expansion. A bill passed by Congress guaranteed all returning servicemen, called G.I.'s, (from GI, "government issue" stamped on all their clothing and equipment) financial support in continuing their education. Most servicemen took advantage of this and enrollment soared at all colleges and universities. At Wayne, many old residences in the area were purchased or rented to serve as classrooms and offices. Six temporary classroom buildings were erected at the site now occupied by the Science Library. A portion of Northern High School was taken over.
Up to this time the university received little financial support from the State of Michigan. Realizing the urgent need for expansion, the state appropriated money for the construction of Science Hall and State Hall which were completed and occupied in 1949. These were the first new buildings for the university and marked the beginning of a rapid expansion of the campus.
In the early 1950's it became increasingly evident that the City of Detroit could no longer support the rapidly growing university. Negotiations began with the state to take over the university and this was accomplished in 1956. Wayne then became Wayne State University. During the period 1956-1960, the university received financial support from both the state and the city and many new buildings were erected. In 1960 the state took complete control of the university. The difficult, youthful years were over, the university had become a mature, respected institution.
1A comprehensive history of the university is given by Hanawalt, L. L. "A PLACE OF LIGHT" WSU Press (1968) Much of the information in this chapter was obtained from this book and from my personal recollections.
The formative years (1917 - 1930)
The chemistry department was first organized in 1917 as part of the Detroit Junior College. The staff consisted of three members: F. C. Irwin, V. S. Brown, and W. H. Clark. Frederick C. Irwin became head of the department, a position which he held until his retirement in 1940. Through his guidance, the chemistry department soon became one of the best in the college. Four courses in Chemistry were offered by the Junior College in 1917; two in General Inorganic Chemistry and one each in Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis. During the next three years several new courses were added; Organic Chemistry, Advanced Qualitative Analysis, and Physical Chemistry. By 1923 when the degree-granting, College of the City of Detroit was formed, the staff had increased to seven members and sixteen different courses were offered. It was now possible for a student to complete a four-year curriculum in Chemistry and obtain a Bachelors Degree. Members added to the staff during this period were: Don S. Miller, Orrett Tatlock, E. J. Bird, all having an M.S. degree from University of Michigan, and Arthur J. Campbell with an M.S. from Wisconsin. Although Professor Irwin had no advanced degrees, (he had a B.S. from the University of Michigan) he realized that the department must be strengthened by the addition of members holding the Ph.D. degree. He realized also that they should come from a variety of Universities in order to establish a broader base in the department. At this time there was a reluctance in other departments to hire Ph.D.'s claiming those holding this degree were interested only in research and they might neglect their teaching duties.
During the period 1925 to 1929 the following Ph.D.'s were added to the department: Harold B. Cutter, organic chemistry from Harvard; Orin E. Madison, colloid chemistry, University of Michigan; William V. Sessions, Metallo-organic from Brown; G. Ray Sherwood, inorganic from University of Illinois; A. Edward Remick, physical-organic from University of Chicago; and Joseph J. Jasper, Surface chemistry from University of Chicago.
In 1930 the Graduate School was organized and Chemistry was one of the first departments to offer the Master's Degree. Requirements for this newly instituted degree occupied much of the discussion in departmental meetings.2 It was finally decided that the student should have the equivalent of a B.S. in Chemistry for admission to the Master's program. For the degree the student had to complete 24 hours of advanced course work, carrying out research, and write a thesis. The initiation of the Master's program was good for the department since many new advanced courses were developed by the faculty. At first, there were only a few candidates but by the mid-1930s, there were a dozen or more working toward the degree.
2 Department of Chemistry, Minutes of Meetings 1930 - 1947. J. J. Jasper served as secretary during this period.
The Depression years 1930 - 1940
The chemistry department was firmly established when I entered the college as a freshman in January 1931. The staff consisted of F. C. Irwin, professor and head of the department. Associate professors Madison and Miller, who was then Assistant Dean of Liberal Arts. Assistant professors Bird, Cutter, and Tatlock. Instructors Campbell, Jasper, Remick, Sessions, and Sherwood. In those days full professorships were held only by department heads. The composition of the department remained unchanged during the following five years owing to severe financial conditions brought on by the depression. Also, there were no promotions; in fact, salaries were cut by twenty percent over this time.
The requirements for the B.S. in chemistry were quite similar to what is required today. (1990) They were: General Chemistry, four hrs; Qualitative Analysis, five hrs; Quantitative Analysis, five hrs; Organic Chemistry, 10 hrs (one year); Physical Chemistry, 8 hrs (one year); and advanced chemistry, 10 hrs. Laboratory was an integral part of all these courses and varied from six hrs per week in General Chemistry to 12 hrs in Quant. In other fields required courses were: mathematics through calculus, one year of physics and two years of German. Other courses such as English, Social Science, etc. were required by the college for graduation. The time spent in the laboratory was much greater than presently and the semesters were longer about 19 weeks. The students of those days had more and better laboratory instruction than today's students. The laboratories were taught by the professors and not by graduate students. Upon receiving his B.S. degree a student could go to work in an industrial laboratory with little additional training. Most chemists then worked at the bench doing what is now called "wet chemistry". The only instruments were the balance and the visual, Duboscq colorimeter.
There were five teaching laboratories in the department. For General Chemistry there was room 10 (capacity 24 students), room 18 (30 students), and room 118 (30 students). Room 12 (36 students) was used for organic. These labs were clustered about the Chemistry office, room 112, in the northeast corner of Old Main. A larger analytical laboratory, room 176 used for Qual and Quant, lay on the west side of the building. I taught laboratory classes at one time or another, in all these rooms.
The laboratory benches and equipment were adequate but ventilation was always a problem. There were fume hoods but they never worked properly. At times, especially in the Qual labs, when students were boiling acid solutions (no desk hoods) a dense fog of fumes filled the laboratory and spilled out into the halls. I remember in 1933 when there was much discussion as to the name of the new university, the Collegian, the school paper, quoted Shakespeare saying, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
Safety precautions in the laboratories were primitive. Students were not required to wear safety glasses. In the organic laboratory, recrystallizations were carried out in open beakers of benzene. No one knew about nor worried about carcinogens. Experiments in general chem involved preparing oxygen by heating mercuric oxide (mercury vapors!) or by heating potassium chlorate (explosive!) and then burning phosphorus in the oxygen gas. Hydrogen gas was prepared by treating zinc metal with dilute sulfuric acid. Occasionally we had minor explosions, but fortunately, no one was severely injured. The most common injury occurred when students picked up hot objects such as glass tubing or rings from ring-stands. When this occurred we put on burn ointment and sent them on their way. Teaching chem lab was exciting in those days! And I might add it was also interesting and exciting to the students.
In the qual lab, hydrogen sulfide gas was commonly used as a reagent. Its putrid smell and extreme toxicity were problems as well as the generation and dispensing of the gas. Originally the gas was generated by reacting diluted hydrochloric acid with ferrous sulfide in a Kipp generator (Does anyone know now what a Kipp generator is?) The gas was piped to various outlets via rubber tubes where the students bubbled it into their solutions. What a mess - what a smell! Later the gas was purchased in high-pressure tanks and stored under oil in a low-pressure container. Still, later it was generated in-situ from thioacetamide. Unknowns contained arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and other toxic substances all of which were dumped down the drain into the sewer. Potassium cyanide solution was used as a reagent and the bottle stood out in the open among other reagents. Silver nitrate was a common reagent - it cost only ten dollars a pound then. In spite of inhaling fumes and handling toxic substances for almost 50 years, here I am 77 years old with no ill effects.
In quantitative analysis, the balances were the double pan type. The object to be weighed stood on the left pan and weights were placed on the right pan until a balance was obtained. Final adjustments were made by manipulating a "rider" on the beam of the balance. Weighings were time-consuming and monotonous but the balances were as accurate as modern analytical balances, i.e., 0.0001 g. Owing to the lack of space, the balances stood in cases in the hallway outside the laboratory. When classes changed one had to suspend weighing operations because of the vibrations and drafts caused by the passing students. The laboratory work in quantitative analysis consisted entirely of gravimetric and volumetric determinations. Filtering and washing a sample sometimes occupied an entire four-hour laboratory period. pH measurements were made entirely with indicators. The complete analysis of a limestone and a brass sample was required and this took several weeks. No wonder students disliked the quant course.
The organic laboratory was a refreshing change after quant. This occupied 8 hours per week and many interesting compounds were prepared. I remember preparing ethylene gas by dehydrating ethyl alcohol with conc. H2SO4 then bubbling the gas into liquid bromine to form ethylene dibromide, which was then washed, dried, and distilled. This was all done out in the open on the benchtop; no ventilation, no safety glasses and no one worried about the toxicity of ethylene dibromide. At appropriate intervals unknowns were given to be identified by classical organic qual methods; i.e., measuring physical properties, making derivatives, etc. The organic lab was interesting and exciting being enlivened by occasional explosions and fires. But I don't recall of anyone being seriously injured.
In examining the minutes3 of the departmental meetings for this period I find the discussions frequently involved the ordering of laboratory equipment and supplies. The chemistry store lay in the basement of Old Main just adjacent to the front elevator. It was under the supervision of Mr. Campbell assisted by a clerk in the storeroom, a Mr. Fitzpatrick, known as "Fitz". Since funds were very limitnally sent downtown to the Board of Education purchasing department where each item had to go out to various suppliers for bids. Needless to say, it was usually months before the order was received by the department. The items obtained frequently bore little resemblance to what was ordered. For example an order of ten, one pound bottles of analytical reagent grade potassium dichromate arrived as a ten pound drum of commercial-grade potassium dichromate, utterly useless as a primary standard. We finally used it up to make "cleaning solution" (do they still make cleaning solution from K2Cr2O7 + conc. H2SO4?)
Another problem in ordering supplies was the fact there was no mechanism to place an emergency order if supplies ran out. I remember one year in April it became evident that the supply of sulfuric acid was running low. In order to conserve the remaining supply, the student had to take his container to the storeroom window where the requisite amount was doled out by Mr. Fitzpatrick.
Another problem arose from the limited amount of space available in Old Main. In those days all classrooms, laboratories, and offices were crowded together into this building. One had to be alert or his office or laboratory would be taken over by someone else. I remember one day when Dr. Jasper arrived he was informed that his small physical chemistry laboratory was to be made into an office for Dr. Pyle, the newly appointed Dean of the Graduate School. Jasper had to move all his equipment into one of the General Chemistry labs. To make matters worse the administration decided to convert room 18, a laboratory, into a classroom, forcing the doubling-up of students in the remaining laboratories. About two years later room 18 was reconverted into a laboratory. What a waste of money! In the later 1930s, a grant was received from the Federal W.P.A.4 to construct additions to Old Main. These were built in the north-central and inner wings of the building and consisted of several new classrooms and a physical chemistry laboratory. During this period the College of Pharmacy moved out of Old Main into a building adjacent to the Medical School downtown. Most of the space occupied by Pharmacy in Old Main was given to Chemistry. A large teaching laboratory, room 165, and several offices and small laboratories became available on the first floor of the southwest wing of the building.
The office for the chemistry department was room 112 Old Main in the northeast corner of the building. All ten faculty members had their desks in this room. There was only one telephone per department and there was no departmental secretary. If typing needed to be done, such as exams, or letters, it had to be taken to the Dean's office where there were two or three secretaries. Most professors wrote their exam questions on the board; only final exams for large sections were typed. In spite of all these difficulties, everything was quite harmonious, the faculty enjoyed a good rapport with each other and with the students. With a full-time student body of approximately 5,000, the atmosphere was much like that of a small college. There were about 10 to 15 of us majoring in chemistry and we formed the "Chemistry Club" which met about once a month and a faculty member or an industrial chemist spoke to us about his specialty. This group continued over the years and later became affiliated with the American Chemical Society.
At this point, I would like to say a few words about teaching loads and salaries. The normal teaching load in the department was 18 to 20 clock hours per week, which included 8 to 12 hours of laboratory supervision. This usually involved teaching two undergraduate courses plus an occasional advanced class. Teaching loads in other departments not having laboratory ran 12 to 15 hours and usually involved teaching three separate classes. A class consisted of 15 to 40 students. There were no large lecture sections. The set-up was much like that in high school where the teacher lectured, discussed and quizzed at appropriate intervals. The laboratory was always an integral part of the course and had to be taken along with the lecture. The laboratory was taught by the professor but he had an undergraduate assistant at his disposal. These are per hour and worked four to 10 hours per week. Actually the pay was not too bad. At the cafeteria, one could purchase a meal of meat, potatoes, vegetable and beverage for $0.15 to $0.20 cents. Hamburgers at the White Tower across the street were 5 cents and a cup of coffee 5 cents. I worked as a laboratory assistant during my junior and senior years and received invaluable experience in making up solutions, preparing the laboratory, and interacting with students. When I started teaching on my own I had all the necessary training and confidence to be a good teacher.
The salaries for the academic staff were very good in terms of purchasing power at that time and were as follows: (per year) instructor, $1,800 to $3,500; assistant professor, $3,500 to $4,000; associate professor, $4,000 to $4,500; full professor $4,500 to $5,000. In those days all government employees were exempted from paying income tax. There was no city or state income taxes, no sales tax and no FICA withholdings. In other words, you got to keep al per year salary would be equivalent to $60,000 in 1990, pretty good for an instructor. Remember a loaf of bread was 10 cents and you could buy a brand new Cadillac for $1,200. In 1936 I purchased a new Plymouth Sports Coupe for $605 (if you don't believe me I still have the bill of sale) but I was making only $1,800 per year.
In the mid-1930s, the depression abated somewhat and more funds became available for the university, also the enrollment increased. At this point, additional staff was required but the university was reluctant to add new full-time faculty. To solve this problem a position of temporary Junior Instructor (equivalent to today's T.A.) was instituted which paid approximately $1,500 per year. Appointed to this position were several of the department's graduate students: Lynn Abbot, James Horton, Angelo Miceli, and Constance Lake. I was teaching full time at Cass Tech High School at the time and was a part-time instructor in the evening school at the university. During this period the aught during the day were also available evenings and many students completed their degrees entirely in the evenings while working full time during the day. There were very few scholarships or assistantships available so students had to work outside to pay for their college educations.
By 1939-40 enough funds were available to add full-time members to the department. They were: Helen Miner, Ph.D. Yale in Biochemistry; J. Russell Bright, Ph.D. Inorganic, Ohio State; Lynn L. Merritt, Ph.D. Analytical, U. of Michigan. There was also talk of a new chemistry building and a committee was formed to draw up plans. This, however, had to be abandoned at the onset of the war (1941) since construction materials were not available.
The year 1940 brought a new problem to the department. Professor Irwin had reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 and a new department head had to be selected. Professor Irwin recommended Dr. Sherwood, his favorite, but this received little support from the other members of the deber of the department, while the younger members favored H. B. Cutter. An impasse arose and it was decided to look outside the department. A departmental search committee was formed and was assisted by a committee from the Detroit section of the American Chemical Society. The search process occupied almost two years and during this time the department was headed by a committee consisting of the three associate professors: Madison, Bird, and Cutter. Actually most of the decisions were made by Dean Miller, a former member of the department. After considering several candidates, Dr. Neil E. Gordon was selected. This proved to be a very wise decision and I shall elaborate on this in the following chapter.
3 Chemistry department, Minutes of Meetings 1932 - 1947. J. J. Jasper, secretary.
4 Works Progress Administration - a governmental organization set up to provide work for the unemployed. Wages $16 per week ($0.40 cents per hour)
The Gordon years 1942-1949
Neil Elbridge Gordon received his Ph.D. degree at Johns Hopkins University then took a teaching position at Gaucher College, a small, private school in Maryland. He taught there five years then moved to the nearby University of Maryland. The following decade at the university proved to be a very productive period. He rose through the ranks and became professor and head of the department. As head of the chemistry department, he also was required to serve as state chemist for Maryland, supervising a staff that regulated the quality of a variety of agricultural products. During this period he also carried on research and directed several graduate students. Although he was very active in administration and research, Dr. Gordon was primarily interested in teaching. At that time there were several journals in which to publish the findings of chemical research, but there was no journal devoted to the teaching of chemistry. To fill this gap Professor Gordon founded the Journal of Chemical Education and served as its editor for several years. The Journal proved to be very successful and still flourishes today.
In light of his outstanding accomplishments, Professor Gordon was invited by his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, to return as professor and head of the department. He was appointed and given the title, professor of chemical education. This period, the late 1920s and early 1930s were rewarding both for Dr. Gordon and the university. The chemistry department enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best in the country. Through his contacts, Professor Gordon was able to obtain grants from alumni and the chemical industry to support many research fellowships in the department. His goal was to support a student from each of the 48 states, a goal which he did not quite achieve owing to the financial effects of the Depression. I might mention that prior to World War II very few scholarships and fellowships were available. Industries and the Universities provided a few but unlike today, the Federal Government provided nothing at all.
During the early 1930s a summer resort on Gibson Island, off the coast of Maryland, was suffering from the effects of the depression. Most of the lodgings were standing empty. Professor Gordon with his usual sagacity arranged a deal with the proprietors to use their facilities for a series of conferences covering the various fields of chemistry. The conferences were an immediate success. Outstanding scholars were invited where they could discuss their findings with colleagues in a relaxed, pleasant environment. These meetings called, "Gibson Island Conferences" were continued by Dr. Gordon after his departure from Johns Hopkins. I remember during his tenure at Wayne he devoted much effort in organizing them and was away during the summer to supervise them. After World War II the conferences were expanded and the facilities at Gibson Island were no longer adequate to house them. They were then diverted to campuses of various universities. After his death in 1949, the meetings were renamed the "Gordon Conferences" in his honor.
Things went along well with Professor Gordon at Johns Hopkins until the mid-1930s, when a new president was appointed. The new president instituted many changes and new policies which were not welcomed by Dr. Gordon and many disagreements arose between him and the new president. Rather than putting up with this situation Dr. Gordon chose to resign and accepted the chairmanship of the chemistry department at Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri. He remained at this post until 1942 when he moved to Wayne University.
While at Central College Professor Gordon continued his association with the Gibson Island Conference and was active in the American Chemical Society. During this period he obtained the custody of a valuable science library assembled by Samuel Hooker, president of the Hooker Chemical Company. As a hobby, Hooker assembled complete volumes of many scientific journals and reference books as well as much of the current literature. Over the years he built up a rather large and valuable library. As he approached retirement Hooker decided to donate the library to Central College under the custody of his friend, Dr. Gordon. Dr. Gordon took great pride in the library and attempted to keep it up to date, but this was difficult owing to the limited financial resources of Central College. When he was offered the post at Wayne University, Dr. Gordon would have liked to bring the library with him. The cost to do this was set at one hundred thousand dollars, which would be equivalent to one million in today's (1990) dollars. The advisory committee, composed of several industrial chemists as well as representatives from Wayne University, considered this too costly and for the time being, the library remained at Central College. In the spring of 1942, Dr. Gordon decided to accept the post at Wayne as head of the chemistry department, and in September 1942 he and his wife moved to Detroit and took up residence at the Park Shelton Apartment Hotel located on the corner of Kirby and Woodward.
My career as a full-time member of the chemistry department coincided with Dr. Gordon's arrival in September 1942. I had been serving as a part-time instructor in the Evening School. During the summer of 1942, instructors L. L. Merritt and A. S. Micelli left the department; Merritt going to the University of Indiana and Micelli to U. S. Rubber (now Uniroyal). This caused an opening that needed to be filled quickly so I was given an appointment as a "temporary" instructor, a temporary appointment that lasted 37 years. Also, arriving in September 1942 was Wendell Powers with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia.
It was with some apprehension we all faced Dr. Gordon at his first formal meeting with the department on September 12, 1942. It was a brief meeting. Dr. Gordon stated that its main purpose was to see that things got off to an orderly start at the beginning of the semester and to set up a time for regular departmental meetings during the year. We were quite impressed with him, and his qualities of leadership were apparent to all of us. He was businesslike, decisive, and well organized, unlike Professor Irwin, who ran the department in a laissez-faire manner. We all realized that things would be different with Dr. Gordon as head. I might mention that in those days at most universities the administrator was designated as "department head" rather than "department Chairman" as commonly done today. The department "head" was responsible only to the higher administration and could run things as he pleased with little or no consultation with the faculty. He could hire, fire, promote, and institute policies as he pleased which led to much friction and animosities in certain other departments. As it turned out with Dr. Gordon, he was more of a "chairman" than a "head"; most of his decisions were made after consultation with the faculty, but he had a strong mind of his own and did not take kindly to any opposition. His stature in the scientific community and his administrative experience would prove to be a great asset to our department and the university.
After the first departmental meeting, things settled down to the normal routine with discussions of class schedules, ordering supplies, etc. Dr. Gordon quickly realized that the set-up in the department was a good one and did not institute many changes. Prior to his arrival, the department was loosely organized into divisions but Gordon recommended that the divisions be made formal with a head for each division. They were Analytical, with E. J. Bird as head; Organic, H. B. Cutter; Physical, J. J. Jasper and General Chemistry, N. E. Gordon. Within a few years, Gordon arranged for these division heads to be promoted to full professors. This was quite an accomplishment for prior to this only department heads were full professors.
Shortly after his arrival Dr. Gordon advised the department that he was co-author of a general chemistry text and would like the department to consider it for use in their classes. A committee was set up and a vote was taken. I still remember the meeting. Dr. Gordon called who had courage enough to vote his convictions, after all, who would risk arousing the displeasure of a new department head. Gordon gave him an icy stare and said, "What's the matter with you, Sherwood?" Actually the book was not very good. It had an unusual format with laboratory experiments interwoven into the text with blanks to be filled in. The students complained that whenever you came to something important there was blank plus blank equals blank.
Owing to his previous administrative experience, Dr. Gordon rapidly mastered the many duties of being a department head at Wayne. He always had good rapport with the higher administration and the members of the department. Many of the routine matters such as ordering supplies, scheduling classes and advising students he delegated to various members of the department. He was always interested in good teaching and frequently remarked that one should strive to be an outstanding teacher or an outstanding researcher or hopefully, both. He frequently dropped by to visit my class. He came in, sat down in an empty seat near the front of the class and listened to my lecture. Fortunately, everything went well and he told me at the end of the hour he was pleased with my performance. Dr. Remick was not so lucky. During his lecture he took issue with one of the statements in Dr. Gordon's book whereupon, Dr. Gordon stood up and proceeded to argue with Remick in front of the class. After the first couple of years, however, Dr. Gordon became so occupied with other departmental matters, mainly setting up a Ph.D. program, that he rarely visited classes anymore.
At one of the early departmental meetings, Dr. Gordon brought up the issue of the Hooker Science Library which still remained at Central College. He asked the faculty if they would have any objectives if he attempted to raise funds to bring the library to Wayne University. We had no objections but regarded this as a dead issue since the earlier committee had recommended against it. But we were not aware yet of Dr. Gordon securing the necessary funds from the local industries. A year later the library was moved here and installed on the third floor of Old Main adjacent to Dr. Gordon's office. Prior to the acquisition of the Hooker Library, the science portion of the university library consisted of a limited number of reference books and a few current journals. The Hooker Library added many additional reference volumes and a number of scientific journals with issues back to their initial publication. This served as a nucleus for our present science library.
The housing of the library was a worry to Dr. Gordon. Old Main with its dust-laden, wooden structure made it prone to fire, especially with several chemistry laboratories scattered throughout the building. One of the last accomplishments of his career was to convince the Kresge Foundation to donate one million dollars for a new building for the library. Although he did not live to see its completion, I am sure he would have been very happy to see his library safely housed in the chemistry staff. He immediately contacted one of his former students, Professor Schlessinger, then at the University of Chicago, to recommend someone. Schlessinger highly recommended one of his own students, Herbert C. Brown. Brown received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and had remained there a couple of additional years to teach and to carry on research. Because of his outstanding record and experience, he was hired as an assistant professor, and unusual occurrence in those days when most new, young Ph.D.'s started as instructors. Herbert C. Brown proved to be a valuable asset to the department and along with Dr. Gordon was instrumental in initiating the Ph.D. degree program.
Dr. Brown arrived at Wayne in the fall of 1943. He was pleasant, energetic, highly knowledgeable, and immediately took an interest in all phases of the department. Unlike many research professors, Dr. Brown took a deep interest in teaching and during his tenure at Wayne regularly taught classes in beginning chemistry as well as advanced courses. When asked in what field of chemistry his interest lay, he always said, "just call me a chemist, I am interested in all fields of chemistry." While at Wayne he taught advanced courses in both Organic and Inorganic chemistry. In examining the teaching laboratories Brown was appalled by the lack of safety precautions. He set about to improve the situation and through his efforts students were required to wear safety glasses in certain laboratories and fire blankets were installed in all the teaching laboratories.
One problem which soon arose after his arrival was to find space for a research laboratory. During Professor Irwin's tenure, research by the faculty was not encouraged and was considered too costly. When a student carried on research for his Master's degree he was usually assigned a desk in one of the teaching laboratories. Professors Remick and Cutter were the only ones who made any attempts at research. After surveying several rooms, the only space with suitable facilities turned out to be the chemistry staff office in room 112 Old Main on the northeast corner of the building. In those days there were no private offices and all the faculty had their desks together in one large room. There were only one telephone and no secretary. When Dr. Gordon arrived, however, he was given a separate private office and a secretary. Because of declining enrollment during those war years, a classroom down the hall was converted to faculty office and Dr. Brown was then confronted with the task of converting an empty room into a research laboratory. This was no easy task since everything was in short supply owing to the war. Some spare laboratory benches were obtained from nearby high schools but pipes and plumbing were difficult to obtain. Finally, over the period of a year or more, the laboratory was completed and Dr. Brown was able to resume his research.
The department was now deeply involved in organizing a program for the Ph.D. degree. You don't realize how much time and schedule, and the chemistry department became the first in the university authorized to grant the Ph.D. degree. Through the efforts of Gordon and Brown several local industries pledged financial support for fellowships; among these were Ethyl Corporation, Parke Davis, and Standard Oil. Things were really moving!
The year 1945 marked great progress. Sumner B. Twiss with a Ph.D. in polymer chemistry from Johns Hopkins joined the staff. A colloquium and seminars for graduate students were instituted. An affiliate group of the American Chemical Society was set up for undergraduate students. The news quickly spread that a Ph.D. degree was being offered and several students signed up, among these were Arthur Ash, Howard Pearsal, Roslyn Siber and Sei Sujishi.
Other things were occurring in the department. The AST program was suddenly disbanded and several hundred army students left, but these were replaced by an even larger number of student nurses so I found myself teaching all women students rather than all-male to cope with the large numbers of nursing students, Gretchen Luros from Cass Tech was transferred to the department where she remained until her retirement several years later. Also added to the department at this time was Eleanor Koehl with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Notre Dame. The department now had three women on its staff, very unusual for chemistry departments of that era.
The fall of 1945 marked the end of the war and in many changes. First was the influx of large numbers of new students resulting from the military personnel returning to civilian life. To accommodate this increase several new staff members were added: David F. Boltz, analytical; Wilfried Heller, physical; and John H. Secrest, physical. Also, returning to the university was J. Russell Bright who worked in industry during the war. Dr. Gordon, who was increasingly occupied with administrative duties, relinquished his position as supervisor of General Chemistry and turned this over to Dr. Bright. Bright did an outstanding job of running the department.
In 1946, Dr. Gordon initiated a series of lectures called, "Frontiers in Chemistry". The first set of speakers included Peter Debye, C. C. Price, H. B. Haas, G. T. Seaborg, C. F. Kettering and Henry Eyring. Frontiers in Chemistry was an immediate success and has continued uninterrupted over the years. It allowed students to become acquainted with outstanding chemists and brought Wayne University to the attention of these influential scientists.
In the spring of 1947, Dr. Brown received an offer from Purdue University. After due consideration, he accepted this offer, moved there, and remained at Purdue for the rest of his illustrious career. Although he was with the department only for a short time, he had a major role in initiating the Ph.D. program.
The influx of new students brought the enrollment at the university to new heights. The need for new classrooms and laboratories became acute. Many classes were taught in temporary buildings and in old residences in the area. Old Main was converted to chemistry laboratories. As the enrollment continued to increase it became evident that new buildings were needed. At this point the state decided to provide funds for the erection of two new buildings: Science Hall, to be shared by Biology, Chemistry and Physics with undergraduate teaching laboratories, and State Hall consisting entirely of classrooms. Plans were soon drawn up by the architect in cooperation with members of the science departments.
The fall of 1947 marked several changes in staff. Added were Albert J. Boyle, Ph.D.-M.D. in biochemistry; William J. Bailey, organic; and Dan Trivich, physical. Sumner Twiss left to join the plastics division of Chrysler Corp., and eventually became head of that division. Two new secretaries were added to the department and now it became possible to have examinations and correspondence typed without taking them to the Dean's office. Also, several new telephone lines were installed in faculty offices. I recall Dean Miller remarkedly and that was adequate for everyone." How times have changed!
Another improvement instituted at this time concerned the chemistry storeroom. Previously one of the faculty had been assigned to supervise the store. This was done for years by Mr. Campbell assisted by a clerk, Mr. Fitzpatrick. As the store expanded in the later 1940s, Dr. Madison replaced Mr. Campbell and two additional storeroom personnel were added: George West and Hing Hoy Quan. At this point, it became obvious that a full-time professional director was required for the store. For this position, Mr. Ray Bigler was selected. Mr. Bigler had an M.S. in chemistry and had been a chemistry teacher in the Detroit High Schools. Mr. Bigler, assisted by Quan and West brought order into the chaos which previously existed in the chem store and laid the foundations for the present-day organization of the store. At this point, I would like to emphasize the importance of a good supporting staff: secretaries, storeroom, and shop personnel. In the words of the poet, John Milton, "They also serve..." These dedicated and hard-working people also served in making Chemistry an outstanding department.
In the early post-war years, two, new, unusual activities occupied the chemistry faculty. First, construction had begun on Science Hall. Although plans had been drawn up by the architect in cooperation with the faculty, there was need to check that construction was going as planned and many minor changes had to be approved as construction progressed. It was great fun to watch the erection of the building and to look forward to having new, modern laboratories.
The second activity involved "War Surplus". With the abrupt end of the war, huge amounts of unused materials became available from the military. These ranged from mundane things such as chemicals, office furniture, shop equipment, tools, etc. to exotic things such as bombsights, depth gauges, and electronic parts. Much of this was available to colleges and universities at little or no cost. Some of us younger faculty spent one afternoon per week visiting salvage depots to pick out useful materials. A complete chemistry laboratory with benches and working equipment was given to the department including a working emission spectrograph which was used for years by Dr. Boyle in his research. My office desk consisted of an old, battered, green army-issue item. Some of these are probably still around.
In a December 1947 meeting of the department, we were surprised to find Liberal Arts Dean, Victor A. was stunned silence. In the discussion that followed, the Dean said the decision was final and he should immediately set up a committee to select an acting chairman. In January 1948 the department met and voted unanimously for J. Russell Bright. I might remark that this was the only time I ever saw the department united in its choice of a chairman. The following September he was appointed as permanent chairman by the Dean. The appointment of Bright marked the change from a department head to a departmed and consulted in all important decisions. Bright proved to be an effective and energetic chairman and the department continued to prosper under his guidance.
During the summer of 1948, the department was saddened by the death of Harold B. Cutter at age 49 of a heart attack. Professor Cutter, who received his Ph.D. under the direction of J. B. Conant of Harvard, was considered the most outstanding member of the department and was a favorite of the students.
The fall of 1948 marked the arrival of three new, assistant professors: James S. Fritz, analytical from Illinois; Karl H. Gayer, inorganic from Ohio State; and Calvin J. Stevens, organic from Wisconsin. Science Hall was now nearing completion and plans were being made for the move into the new building. The move began in spring 1949. It was a major operation. Equipment and supplies had to be moved into the new laboratories. The new shop and chem store in the basement had to be set up. The storeroom staff worked long and hard and were assisted by students and faculty. Finally, in the fall of 1949, the transfer was completed and classes were taught in the new building. What a joy it was to teach in new, bright, well-ventilated laboratories. Since the building was designed for undergraduate teaching all research laboratories remained in Old Main, but much office and research space now became available there.
In the meantime, things were not going along well for Dr. Gordon. In the fall of 1948, he was hospitalized and underwent an operation for an intestinal obstruction. After a month's recuperation, he returned to his teaching duties but one could see he still was not well. During the winter he was hospitalized for another operation. After recovery, he returned again to his teaching duties. He loved to teach Freshman Chemistry and taught both the lecture and laboratory. But now it was a great effort for him. It was sad to see him going about stooped and with a dull look in his eyes. He seemed to be in constant pain but he never complained and faithfully continued his teaching duties. Although it was never mentioned, I now believe he was afflicted with cancer. In those days illness was not openly discussed as today. It happened on Good Friday during spring break. In a fit of despair, he went to the roof of his apartment building and threw himself off.
The department was in a state of shock for several weeks, but gradually things returned to normal. The passing of Dr. Gordon marked the end of an important era. He accomplished so much for the dl, to write a history of the more recent developments in the department.
In the following years under the guidance of Drs. Bright, Coleman, and Stevens, the department continued to prosper. But that is another story and maybe we can persuade those young fellows, Cal Stevens and Norm LeBel, to write a history of the more recent developments in the department.
Written by Richard B. Hahn, professor emeritus, Department of Chemistry, Wayne State University, June 1991