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A Non-Chemical Review of the Chemistry Department

by Dr. Reuben B. Sandin, Professor Emeritus

The University of Alberta Chemistry Department began when the University began in 1908. The department was first housed in the Collegiate Institute (later High School) which was located in Strathcona on the south side of the river. It then moved to the north wing of Athabasca Hall, then to the second floor Arts and from there to the west end of the Medical Building.

The first man in charge was Dr. A. L. F. Lehman, born and raised in Ontario, and who received his chemical education in Ontario (Toronto, Guelph) and later in Germany (Leipzig). Dr. Lehman had a wide knowledge of chemistry, which was possible in those days, and so he taught everything from "soup to nuts." He taught organic, inorganic and analytical chemistry, and such things as "soils" and "feeds and feeding" to the Agricultural students. He was a fine teacher and a dedicated one and this was only exceeded by his great kindness and his great concern for his students and for all of humanity. He hated sloppy lab techniques and so introduced the "black mark" system for sloppiness. This was dropped because it involved too much bookkeeping. Instead the student was reprimanded but no enemies were made and no ill feeling was generated. Ten minutes after the reprimand the same student might be eating strawberries and cream with Dr. Lehman or the student might be accepting an invitation for the next morning's meal which invariably would be porridge with cream, hot cakes and bacon and strong coffee. The students loved it — the reprimands followed by hot cakes and bacon.

Dr. Lehman also did original work whenever he had time. The nature and spread of his work is indicated by some titles taken at random:

1. Seventh Annual Report of the Agricultural Chemist for the year 1905-06. A. Lehman, Department of Agriculture, Mysore State, India. (Dr. Lehman spent 10 years in the Indian Civil Service. One of his slogans was "never join the Civil Service").

2. 1912-Relation between the amount and severity of mental work and excretion of CO2 (German reference available).

3. The Tar Sands of Alberta. Can. Chem, J. 2, 196-7, (1918). In this he says "the refining of the oils is very difficult" and "on oxidation with HN03, oxalic acid is invariably the final product." (After five decades the tar sand situation is still pretty much the same.)

Dr. Lehman suffered unnecessary and cruel persecution during World War I. His German name and ancestry made some of the "solid" citizens across the river and one high official on the campus suspect him of delivering Alberta tar sand secrets to the German Kaiser. The mental anguish which this produced was noticeable in Dr. Lehman's lectures. Students were sorry and sympathetic. They understood. They were his friends.

Dr. Lehman himself was reprimanded by one "higher up" because there were no chemistry department minutes, no minutes because no meetings, and no meetings because there was nothing to discuss. There was no money to spend, no buildings to build, no graduate students, no T.A.'s, no new courses, no new equipment, no research grants (to the administration "research" was a bad word), nothing to talk about. So the chemistry department decided on one meeting a year, just to have some minutes, and the minutes were and remained so for many years viz.

Professor so and so present. Minutes of a year ago read and passed.
Passed that in Chemistry X, 15% failed.
Passed that Mr. Jones write a supp. in chemistry X.
Meeting adjourned.

Outside the chemistry department the committees and their meetings were legion and everyone was supposed to attend. It had a deadening effect. Before you knew it you were part of the establishment of bureaucrats and there was no escape. You knew it was true but you dared not put it into words or actions. You dared not mention red tape or monotony and all the while your mind kept coming back to those beautiful crystals. They should be filtered and put on a watch glass.

The feeling to leave the committee meeting is overpowering. Then someone says, "Should Mr. X get 49 or 50% ?" And someone else says, "Let's raise it to 51% ." Then someone who is a little brighter than the rest says, "Who'll make it 52 %?" And by now you are glued to your chair and you are hungry as well as tired. But where are those crystals so beautiful, so full of the mystery and poetry of all creation? Where is the chemist I once knew? I am sure he was there in the beginning. Where is he now?

Those were the days of Jena glass, Merck (Darmstadt) chemicals and Bunsen burner gas generated in the little brick building behind Athabasca Hall. The little building is still there. The gas was made by dropping a stream of kerosene on red hot iron (students' first introduction to "cracking"). These were happy days and also sad and frightening days. World War I was being fought and many fine students and professors never returned. The dreadful flu epidemic was in full swing and Pembina Hall became a Hospital for the sick and dying. Students were sent home and again many never returned. In the fullness of time the more fortunate students and professors did return and there also returned the peace which comes from hard and satisfying work.

Associated with Dr. Lehman was Alfred Denys Cowper who taught physical chemistry and who was an excellent lecturer. He did no research. He seemed to be a very quiet and lonely man and spent his spare moments playing the ukulele, fixing his bicycle, barbering his own hair and on Saturday afternoons he would be sitting in the front row in Pantages theatre (a Vaudeville house on Jasper Avenue). Once Cowper opened his mouth maybe out of turn. That was at the end of a Science Association Meeting at which J. B. Collip (Biochemistry, U. of A.) had given a fine talk on his work concerning the electrical conductivity of blood. Cowper got up and said, "I don't see how anyone can get the conductivity of a bunch of jelly bags." Little did people realize that J. B. Collip was to share in the Nobel prize for work on insulin.

Cowper one spring did not show up. Some people said he had gone back home to work for Donnan and his membranes. Others said that Cowper was selling radio equipment, etc.

Then there was William Hatcher from McGill, who taught organic. Hatcher was a delightful person, a good teacher and a fine researcher (H2O2). After a number of years

Hatcher returned to McGill and was professor of chemistry at that university for a very long time.

W. F. Seyer (Botha, Alberta) was a graduate assistant in the department and became so because he was the first graduate in Honors Chemistry from the University of Alberta. Seyer was a brilliant student but annoyed people with his sarcasm. Minus the sarcasm (which always had some humor in it) Seyer was a dandy fellow and had some good jokes to tell. If a student was too long drawn out in a tale of woe, Seyer might tell the student, "Well, it sure sounds pretty bad. The only way out that I see is for you to go out and shoot yourself." (George Govier will verify this. George was a student of Seyer at U.B.C.) Seyer told his students to read their chemistry text books and for relaxation to read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Whether Seyer was joking or not no one knew. He went from the U. of A. to McGill, then to U.B.C. where he built up the department of chemical engineering to the extent that it was rated by a team of chemical engineering experts as one of the best in Canada. From U.B.C. he went to U.C.L.A. where he says he is still on the staff because he plays a good game of tennis. Seyer with V. K. Krieble carried out the careful low pressure fractionation of Alberta tar sands oil (13 pure hydrocarbons from C11H22 to C25H46 were isolated – no double bonds and some tricyclic systems) J. Am. Chem. Soc., 43, 1337-49 (1921).

Drs. E. H. Boomer, N. Stover, O. Bridgman and O. J. Walker became members of the department during this period, though later than Seyer. Boomer (U.B.C. and McGill), was outstanding for his teaching of physical chemistry and for his research which covered a wide field. He did much high pressure hydrogenation and was rated another Homer Adkins. He hydrogenated the tar sands, wheat straw, oat hulls, saw dust, etc. These materials though may have been a cover up for the basic high pressure research he was so interested in. Boomer from a personal standpoint, was described as a "straight shooter." He disliked the great number of committees because they interfered with teaching and research. In particular, he disliked the Freshman Committee. One of Boomer's very brilliant students had been advised by this committee to go home and stay there. Boomer knew a much better way because he gave encouragement when and where it was needed. Boomer's student assumed great stature in chemistry and is now one of the vice-presidents in charge of Monsanto Research.

Boomer died and the gloom that settled stayed for a long time. The U.of A. had lost a brilliant scientist and hundreds of people had lost a wonderful friend.

Norman Stover is best described as another Boomer. Some people described Boomer as another Stover. Stover (Honors Chemistry, U: of A.) did his graduate work at Illinois and was part of the Hopkin's group doing work on the rare earths. He gave a course in general chemistry which for many years was considered a classic from the standpoint of content and delivery. Stover was not a robust man (neither was Boomer) but in spite of this did some excellent research. After a lingering illness, Stover died. Again the gloom moved in and did not move on for a long time.

Both Stover and Boomer (others too) were victims of an establishment which gave no encouragement to anyone. One president who saw the light said that a grave injustice had been committed. Stover in time was given the place he so richly deserved and another president saw to it that Boomer was put in charge of chemical engineering. Boomer was an undergraduate in chemical engineering and was the only chemical engineer on the campus and probably the most outstanding one in Canada.

O. J. Walker (Saskatchewan and Harvard), O. Bridgman (Saskatchewan and Harvard), and J. W. Shipley (Manitoba and Harvard) are classed together because their chemical training was very much the same. They were influenced by Harvard's T. W. Richards whose magnificent work in the field of atomic weights was the most accurate quantitative work possible. So analytical work came into its own and it also was an era of calibration. Everything was calibrated; weights, thermometers, pipettes, flasks, cylinders, etc. Walker gave a splendid course in quantitative chemistry and his students worked on the iodine and fluorine contents of just about everything drinkable and edible. Bridgman did not stay long and went to Washington, D.C. Shipley went as analytical man to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes with the National Geographic Society. He also did much work on alternating current electrolysis. Shipley followed Lehman as Head, and Walker in turn followed Shipley. These were the days of the II World War and the Great Depression. Fred Irwin (Honors Chemistry, U. of A. and later Cal. Tech.) went overseas and was killed over Germany. There is now the Irwin Memorial Prize in Chemistry. People have asked, "Why was Fred Irwin willing to die?" Maybe the answer is found in, why did he treat his laboratory equipment with such seeming tenderness, and why in the early spring did he linger along the river bank on his way to chem classes? His best friend Don Clark (Honors Chemistry, U. of A., Ph.D. Cal. Tech.) went overseas and was lucky and is now in molecular biology at the University of Toronto.

This too is the era of the new nomenclature (work-shop, ethnic groups, etc.) and you also hear, "If I am Assistant General this year, then maybe next year I'll be General." So you wonder what this is all about. Did you spend eight years more or less, training to be a chemist or not? Do you become a committee man and a smooth talker? Some take the easy way, because it's so easy to put on a report card. Some are afraid of being classed as a nobody, a stupe, a second class citizens. Or do you do like Boomer and grasp someone by the shoulder while there is time? And do you try to do a splendid best with the training you have and in the field in which you are. You take your pick. You are true or untrue to those crystals which are so true to you.

And finally come, but not properly in the early history of the department viz. Walter Harris, Bob Brown, Stu Davis and Jack Morrison (three out of four have their phone numbers listed). Without too much talk suffice it to say that these four gentlemen are splendid in their teaching and in their research.

The alpha was Adolph Lehman and now the omega is Harry Gunning. Harry came because the department wanted him and not because he wanted the department. How could anyone want a bunch of broken down plumbing, desks and equipment, and all the dirt accumulation over the years? And this went along with a bunch of discouraged chemistry professors who were at the low point of the curve. But Harry heard the cry, "Come to Macedonia and help us," and thank God he came. He came to help and what a splendid job he has done. He is the Head, but he does not behave like a Head, or a Dean or even a President. For this he is respected. To this respect is added the respect for his great scientific achievements.

P.S. Dr. Gunning has surrounded himself with chemists who can't be beaten.

Published Winter 1965/66.

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