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FEATURE

Pitt's Department of Chemistry Celebrates 120 Years
of Exceptional Teaching and Research

TOBACCO PIPES AND TEACUPS
WRITTEN BY TOMMY EHRBAR
Action leading to reaction. This is how the science of chemistry works. For 120 years, it has worked wonderfully well at the University of Pittsburgh: in teaching, in research, and in transforming the world we live in. Action leading to reaction. Let us celebrate the history of a great chemistry department, now among the top 25 in the country. Here, most briefly, are a few of its elements.

Chemistry, as an exact science, is a very young discipline. In the year, say, 1787, both Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte -- and many scientists of the time -- believed that matter consisted of earth, air, fire, and water, as the ancient Greeks had. Less than two decades later, when Napoleon, as self-crowned emperor, sold Louisiana to Jefferson, scientists had determined the first atomic and molecular weights.

In the year 1787, of course, the Pittsburgh Academy, forerunner of today's University, was founded. And by 1811, chemistry was taught three days a week by a Dr. Aigister. His lectures proved so popular among students and townspeople -- who could attend for a small fee -- that they led to the formation of the Pittsburgh Chemical and Physiological Society. Still, there was no chemistry department or laboratories, per se. That would not happen until 1875 and the arrival of an extraordinary scientist and teacher named Francis Clifford Phillips.

Phillips was born in Philadelphia and educated at the University of Pennsylvania. As a young scientist, he studied in Wiesbaden, Germany, under Carl Fresenius, the foremost analytical chemist of that era.

Action leading to reaction. In 1875, when Phillips arrived in Pittsburgh, the city was at the red-hot center of an industrial revolution: manufacturing iron and steel and glass, processes fueled by coal and oil and natural gas. Good industrial chemists were in demand and the Western University of Pennsylvania (later the University of Pittsburgh) eagerly established a chemistry department -- albeit a department of one.

As the single chemistry professor, Phillips was likewise required to elucidate to students the fundamentals of mineralogy, geology, zoology, botany, anatomy, and physiology. He wrote in his memoirs: "I must admit that in looking back I somewhat admire my boldness in shouldering this monstrous task, but I have learned to believe since then, from my own observation, that the greater the omniscience of a professor, as gauged from the multiplicity of his program of courses, the less he is likely to know."

The new chemistry department soon made its presence keenly known. Says Phillips, "We had no ventilating hood at first and our experiments with hydrogen sulfide, chlorine, et cetera, brought upon us the wrathful protests of the professors of mathematics and of history in the rooms overhead."

Phillips quietly petitioned Chancellor George Woods for rudimentary scientific equipment. Woods, quoting the great scientist Sir Humphry Davy, responded: "A chemist needs only a few tobacco pipes and tea cups to perform the most varied experiments." Moonlighting as a lecturer at the Pittsburgh College of Pharmacy, Phillips spent his entire side income to purchase suitable equipment for his chemistry students.

Phillips, who acquired an international reputation in the chemistry of natural gas and petroleum, continued to teach students for 40 years. During the nineteenth century, he was one of few chemistry chairmen welcoming women to the study of laboratory chemistry. Shortly before he died, this shy and humble man who treated his students with such love and respect, wrote in his memoirs: "As I approach the twilight of my day I feel regret, not because age is drawing near, but at the thought that I may not have done as much as I might have done for those young men and women who have so cordially trusted me as their teacher."

Phillips set the standard for chemistry chairs to come: in longevity of service, in quality of research, and in devotion to teaching. He was succeeded by Alexander Silverman, an authority on the chemistry of glass, who would guide the department to higher acclaim over the next four decades while attracting brilliant young chemists to Pitt.

Among Silverman's most gifted graduate students was Glenn Donald Kammer, who was fascinated with the power and enigma of radioactivity. Kammer entered the field of radium research in 1913, teaming up with Pitt chemistry alumnus Henry T. Koenig and University of Chicago professor Charles H. Viol in the laboratories of the Standard Chemical Company of Pittsburgh. Early in this century, they produced half the supply of crystallized radium then existing in the world, spurring revolutionary developments in chemistry and physics. In 1921, the Pittsburgh researchers concocted a special gram of radium conferred upon Madame Curie on her visit to America. Yet, there is a dark side to the story of Kammer, Koenig, and Viol. All three died young, sacrificing their lives in their research with radioactivity, not fully knowing that force's lethal power.

Action leading to reaction. In 1932, another young Pitt chemist, Charles Glen King, achieved a medical and scientific breakthrough. After five years of painstaking research extracting components from lemon juice -- requiring untold thousands of lemons -- King and his colleagues isolated, identified, and later synthesized vitamin C. Their discovery meant prevention of the disease of scurvy, long a source of human suffering. During World War II, King was named chairman of the Nutrition Foundation, which funded research into the nutritional problems facing a country and an army at war. He continued his innovative work with vitamin C until his retirement from Columbia University in 1964.

The story of chemistry at Pitt again and again reprises King's remarkable achievement: basic science leading to far-reaching medical success. In 1960, Klaus Hofmann synthesized the hormone ACTH, which treats severe burns and several forms of arthritis. (Hofmann was chemistry professor from 1944 to 1952, when he moved to the School of Medicine. He remained adjunct faculty in chemistry for more than three decades.) Breakthroughs have also occurred outside the health field. In the 1960s, chemistry chairman W.E. Wallace prepared the then-most powerful magnetic material in the world, a tremendous tool for high-energy physics experimentation. It was in a Pitt chemistry lab in the early 1980s that researcher Jules Rebeck helped pioneer "molecular recognition." A new field with potential for far-reaching applications, molecular recognition is the ability of a single molecule to recognize and respond to another molecule. Action leading to reaction.

Enrollment in chemistry has fluctuated over the decades. In the years after World War II, this science, with the department's reputation for great teaching, proved a popular major. By 1952, chemistry was one of the largest departments of the University. This was the era of W.E. Wallace as chair. He not only built magnets, he was a magnet for the University: attracting new talent, new grants, a new building, and new razzle-dazzle equipment. Chemistry at Pitt took a quantum leap forward.

And the department has ascended in stature ever since. The current chair is Andrew Hamilton, an expert in molecular recognition. Says Hamilton, "There's no question the long tradition of chemistry here has laid the foundation for what is currently an extremely active department, both in our teaching of undergraduate and graduate students, and in the visibility of our research programs. We are clearly one of the better chemistry departments in the country." He and his colleagues include winners of the most prestigious awards in their fields. Day after day they advance the state of their science in astonishingly new and fertile directions. Beyond the basic studies of chemistry -- organic, inorganic, and analytic -- researchers today explore such new realms as coordination chemistry, organometallic chemistry, surface science, materials research, natural products synthesis, laser spectroscopy, and theoretical chemistry. Whole new industries are emerging from university labs: biotechnology, smart materials, and nano -- technology (where the scale of units is one-billionth of a meter).

In what may well be the next revolution in medical science, drug designers at Pitt and elsewhere are fundamentally enlarging the tool chest of therapeutic chemicals -- combating a diverse range of viruses and tumors, as well as cancer and AIDS. Much of this work is interdisciplinary, involving creative collaboration among biologists, engineers, computer scientists, clinical researchers from Pitt's Medical Center, and of course, chemists.

After 120 years here, chemistry is alive with intellectual excitement and action, driven forward by wondrous technologies, altering the texture of our world and the quality of our lives. If Francis Phillips, the first chairman, were to visit the labs today, what might be his reaction? Possibly he could understand the principles by which his successors transmute one substance into another. But what in the world would he make of their version of tobacco pipes and tea cups?


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