From the C&EN Archives

November 9th, 2010

Chemical and Engineering News brought its photo albums out of the attic yesterday and posted PDF scans of its old issues.  What a treasure trove.  As of now, the archives appears only to go back to 1988, but it already includes some real gems.

Naturally, the first thing I was inclined to do was search for my advisors.  I was not disappointed.  The September 15th, 1969 issue features Harry Gray playing guitar on the cover.  The accompanying story discusses his receipt of the Pure Award in Chemistry, and the lead paragraph pretty much sums up the awesomeness of the article:

Harry Gray talks in a breezy vernacular more often associated with locker rooms than with chemistry labs; he owns two fast cars, a Corvette and a 1957 Jaguar XK140; he loves tennis and plays the game with a loping, easy grace that belies his 6-foot 4-inch frame. Like two thirds of American males, Dr. Gray has been known to bend an elbow with the boys, and even jests that his involvement in what he calls “inorganic biochemistry” resulted from an idea that hit him “on my 17th drink.”

In the same article, Harry pointed to center field with less ambiguity than Ruth in ’32, and declared:

“We’re at a plateau right now in inorganic chemistry,” he says, “and 90% of the people in the field are just spinning their wheels. Sure, we’re making slow progress in a number of areas, but the great renaissance in inorganic which resulted from application of the discoveries of quantum theory is over. In the fifties we had this upsurge of creativity, but in the past few years it has been obvious that most work is just an extension of work done in this renaissance era. Until we go to the next level of creative effort,” Dr. Gray adds, “I don’t believe the excitement is going to reappear.”

The next upturn will come in five or six years, Dr. Gray believes, and he thinks he knows one important area of work that will be responsible for it. His own.

“Inorganic biochemistry”—the area upon which Dr. Gray is placing his bets—is another of those endless, seemingly casual brainstorms which scientists and inventors are wont to have.

Pretty cool.  As a footnote, concerned citizens later wrote letters-to-the-editor to protest the portrayal of Harry’s Jag as “12-cylinder” and to applaud C&EN on not being “uptight”.

Finally, I would lose my membership in the Organic Division if I did not search the archives for all-things-Woodward.  His obituary, which is unsatisfactorily bland, can be found here.  What I want to know is what happened to the 7-29-1947 edition of C&EN?  It is supposed to feature a cover shot of our hero and a colorful story on his days at MIT:

The rest of his life, before he entered MIT at the doddering old age of 16, consisted of being born on April 10, 1917, attending schools at Quincy, Mass., and generally living as an average American youth. One exception to the latter statement might be found, however, in that the great majority of the younger male Americans do not become engrossed in devising a synthesis for quinine. His activity on this problem, which Woodward carried with him from his high school days, taught him, in his own estimation, the great bulk of his knowledge of organic chemistry. He strongly recommends attempting to synthesize a ‘tough molecule’ as the best teacher in this field.

“The success of this Woodward system of self-education was affirmed by Dr. James Flack Norris…’When he [Woodward] entered the institute as a freshman, he already had as much knowledge of organic chemistry as a man normally acquires during four years of enrollment in undergraduate classes.'”

In spite of this, Woodward flunked out of MIT in the middle of his second year. “At that point, the slow [to him] pace of the prescribed chemistry curriculum caused a restlessness and boredom that nearly proved disastrous to his career. Fortunately, as advocates of progressive education will claim, the MIT faculty grasped the situation and designed a curriculum for Woodward’s exclusive use. Its flexibility enabled him to experiment in his own laboratory and spend as little time as he wished in classes, provided, of course, that he presented himself for examinations. This arrangement proved especially helpful to the young scientist because it enabled him to take courses, the total hours of which amounted to more than the 168 found in the conventional week.

“In June 1936, at the end of his third year, MIT awarded Woodward his bachelor of science degree. In the commencement ceremonies of the following June, while his class was receiving their baccalaureate recognition, the student of ‘tough molecules’ donned the gold tassel of the Ph.D.

The C&EN archives also lets us know that long before Nicolaou employed metaphors of Greek mythology, Woodward spoke of “dragons to be slain” in chemistry.  From the same story, it is interesting to note that he got C&EN to treat his Nichols Medal address on progress towards the synthesis of reserpine as off-the-record.

I’ll keep searching for that July 29th, 1947 issue with Woodward on the cover; it is currently missing from the archives.  I can only assume some C&EN editor’s mother found the magazine under a mattress and threw it out.

14 Responses to “From the C&EN Archives”

  1. Paul Says:

    It seems the archive is having a bit of trouble serving pages. They’re all there; keep clicking.

  2. Neil Says:

    That. Is. Brilliant.

  3. Rachelpep Says:

    Paul, is this the Woodward cover you were looking for? If so, that’s actually the May 22, 1967 issue (though I’m now also curious where two of the July 1947 issues are hiding…). I hear the rest of the issues should be loaded into the archive by the end of the weekend.

  4. Neil Says:

    From the article:

    Much to the surprise (and possibly the chagrin) of some of his colleagues, both he and the Jag starred in a recent Caltech movie that featured him piloting his 12-cylinder antique around the circular portico of one of
    the institute’s buildings. “There wasn’t much clearance between the wall and the columns,” he says, “so I had to keep my speed down.”

    You’ve got to find that movie…

  5. Paul Says:

    @Rachel: That’s a good one, but I’m greedy and want the 1947 one, too.

    @Neil: Lots of follow up “work” to do on this post.

  6. James Says:

    I dug out that 1947 Woodward article a few years ago. The tone was really weird. It said something about, “When not in the lab, he can be found at home spending quality time with his family” or something like that. Given that he was a classic workaholic known for saying things like, “as far as yearly holidays are concerned, I take Christmas day off”, it struck me as a little strange.

  7. Matt Says:

    Paul, any chance Harry is reliving some of his memories now that they are immortalized in your post … I REALLY need to figure out how to get out there in March

  8. Everyday Scientist » c&e news archive Says:

    […] Paul inspired me to go check out the C&E News Archives. I was happy to find an article about my PhD […]

  9. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    The best article on Harry Gray I have read is here:

    It begins thus:

    “Prof. Harry Gray, the six-foot-three California Institute of Technology inorganic chemist, National Academy of Sciences member, and likely candidate for a Nobel Prize, sometimes lectures as a horse or as a leopard. His students retaliate by gluing his hand to his telephone, turning the lecture hall seats backward, and on one memorable occasion binding a nude centerfold of him into the Caltech catalog…”

    About Woodward, it’s worth noting that Woodward wrote two single-author papers when he had flunked out of MIT. The best source on all things Woodward is still the lavish Woodward encyclopedia by Benfey and Morris, “Robert Burns Woodward : Architect and Artist in the World of Molecules”:

    A few years back I also found an MIT Tech issue published in 1965 after Woodward and Feynman won the Nobel Prize at the same time. Both were MIT alumni and equally brilliant. I wonder if someone knows the link to this issue.

  10. Rachelpep Says:

    Fiiiiiine. We’ll start overturning mattresses for the missing 1947 issue.

  11. Step on in to the science cafe | ScienceGeist Says:

    […] Carl Zimmer wrote a feature for the New York Times Science section recently titled, “Voices: What’s Next in Science.” Well, that’s certainly a big question. Zimmer interviewed ten scientists from various fields (space science, conservation, game design, ocean science, climate change, genomics, engineering, neuroscience, biotechnology, and mathematics). Their responses are very directed and specific (as you might expect their comments to be … they are scientists for heaven’s sake). Actually, I have a feeling that Zimmer pressed them to be concrete. It’s a great read. And, I am always fascinated when the world’s top scientists are talking about where they think the future of research is headed. […]

  12. Alex Says:

    Thought you’d like to know… we just made a demo video of C&EN Archives available, and (inspired by this blog post) we decided to use the Harry Gray article in it. Enjoy!

  13. Paul Says:

    Sweet. But you guys shouldn’t let this sort of power get to my head.

    You should have just made the video and let me find it myself. Then I could have written a 3,500-word rant that accuses you of reading this blog and stealing all of my awesome findings. If our paths crossed at the next ACS meeting, we could exchange ChemBark and CEN tchotchkes and uncomfortably pretend that nothing happened.

  14. Paul Says:

    It should be noted that this post has not only influenced an ACS Pubs video, but a blogroll column in January’s Nature Chemistry as well.

    What’s next?

    Probably my letter of termination.

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