A Century of Chemistry at Millikin University

George D. Bennett, Millikin University

August 2000, all rights reserved

Classes began at Millikin University on September 15, 1903. The next day, student agitation in the chemistry laboratory led to the creation of campus athletic programs. Since that time, the Department of Chemistry has continued to play a major role in the life of Millikin University.

James Millikin, a cattle herder, realtor, banker and philanthropist in Decatur, Illinois, teamed with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the city of Decatur to provide funding for a college

"‘where the scientific, the practical and industrial shall have a place of equal
importance, side by side with the literary and the classical.’"(1)

Millikin's eponymous institution was founded on April 30, 1901 and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 4, 1903.(2) Ninety-seven classes have since been graduated, and the university is poised to celebrate a centenary of fulfilling James Millikin's vision.

A Smaller, Downstate University of Chicago?

Several parallels between the fledgling Millikin University and the University of Chicago, Millikin's senior by ten years, are worthy of note. Both institutions were among the first in the country to combine liberal and vocational education. The above quotation from James Millikin found its counterpart in the words of Albion W. Small, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Literature at the University of Chicago:

"‘. . . we are adopting in practice the calling conception of education. . . We
are about to declare in practice that we will no longer defer and defraud
preparation for our vocations out of deference to an illusory standard of
mental depth and breadth. . . college education is become rudimentary
professional education.’"(3)

The first president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, was committed to

"an education that prepared students for practical life."(4)

Both institutions began with seed money from a wealthy benefactor combined with funds provided by a Christian denomination. James Millikin's bank was the largest in Illinois outside of Chicago. The banker contributed half of the initial funds, as well as the land, for his college and challenged his city and the Presbyterian Church to match the monetary gift.(5) In the case of the University of Chicago, the benefactor was John D. Rockefeller, and the denomination was Baptist. However, the proposal and planning for the University of Chicago did not originate with Mr. Rockefeller as the proposal and planning for Millikin University did with James Millikin.(6)

Both universities were located in rapidly-growing "western" cities. The population of Decatur in 1860 numbered approximately 3,800.(7) By the 1880s, it had reached 12,000, on its way to 41,000 in 1915.(8) Chicago tripled in size between 1870 and 1890 and had become the second largest city in the country.(9) This explosive growth was caused in no small way by the spread of railroads. Decatur's position, roughly equidistant from Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis, made it an ideal depot for overland shipping between those and other cities. Between 1849 (five years before the first train rolled through town) and 1857, the population of Decatur more than quadrupled from 900 to 3,650.(10) Similarly, Chicago was situated such that much cross-country traffic passed through it. Incidentally, both communities played a prominent role in the presidential election campaign of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Decatur was the site of the Illinois Republican nominating convention, and Chicago played host to the national Republican nominating convention.(11)

Faculty and Students in the Department of Chemistry

The Department of Chemistry was part of Millikin University from the beginning. It, like any other department, acquired a culture through the contributions of both its faculty and students. Exemplary individuals from both groups are profiled below. Although these lists are intended to be representative, they are not intended to be exhaustive. Readers should not interpret the omission of someone as a criticism of that person's contribution(s) to either the department or chemistry.

Of the forty-five chemistry faculty members employed at Millikin during its first century, Dr. John Charles Hessler stands out above all others because of his contributions to both his discipline and the college.

Hessler received his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Chicago in 1899 under the direction of John Ulrich Nef(12), the head of Chicago's chemistry department whose research was well-known in both America and Germany.(13) Nef's goal at the University of Chicago was to develop a program of chemistry that would be

"‘comparable with the best in Germany.’"(14)

Nef has been described as

"a man intent upon advanced instruction and research."(15)

It is fair to say that Hessler followed his example.

At the age of 20, while still an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Hessler passed a qualifying examination to become a high school chemistry and physics teacher. Over the next ten years, he continued to teach at the high school level and completed both his Master’s degree and doctorate. After working as a chemistry instructor at his alma mater, Hessler arrived at Millikin in 1907. His tenure lasted until 1920. For the first seven years of his stay, Hessler was the only faculty member in the department. By the time he left, the department had grown to three faculty members. However, this expansion took place in part because Hessler became dean in 1917 and acting president in 1919. After the 1919-1920 academic year, Hessler left Millikin to become the assistant director of the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research (Pittsburgh, PA). In 1921, he joined the faculty at Knox College. In 1934, he put his retirement plans on hold and returned to Millikin to serve as the sixth president of the university. He fulfilled the duties of his office until his death on July 29, 1944 at the age of 75.(16)

Hessler contributed to the field of chemistry by organizing the Illinois Academy of Science in 1908(17) and by writing two textbooks. He shared authorship of his first book, Essentials of Chemistry, with Albert L. Smith. The original book was published in 1902, and a revised edition with an accompanying laboratory manual was publishd in 1912. The book was necessary, according to the authors, because a:

"knowledge of Chemical Sciences is necessary for the intelligent study of
other natural sciences, such as geology, astronomy, biology, physiology, etc.,
for these sciences make special applications of the ideas of Chemistry.
Chemistry is also very practical, for the facts and methods it teaches are
in the most common use in the arts and every-day life."(18, emphasis in original)

The book extensively described industrial methods of preparation of various elements and compounds. It also stressed experimental methods:

"Equations mean nothing unless they are the result of experiment."(19,
emphasis in original)

The laboratory manual consisted of 87 experiments, each designed for a one- to two-hour lab period.(20)

Hessler's second book, The First Year of Chemistry, was published in 1931. While similar in organization to the first book, the rationale for this second effort was, in part, to

"justify the science [of chemistry] to those who have only one school year in
which to become acquainted with it."(21)

Hessler included some of the history of chemistry

"in order to show glimpses of the path along which the minds of the great
discoverers had to travel."(22)

The efficacy of this approach is underscored by the recent publication of a book that argues for the inclusion of the history and philosophy of science rather than adherence to the latest fads of education theory as a superior way of promoting scientific understanding.(23)

Hessler endeavored to make his book current with the latest findings. For example, he included pictures of G.N. Lewis' cubes to illustrate the octet rule, and he defined periodicity in terms of atomic number as opposed to atomic weight.(24) Throughout, he retained his characteristic emphasis on the application of chemical knowledge to practical problems of manufacturing and common life.

Despite not being at a large research university, Hessler remained an active scholar while at Millikin.(25) By including undergraduate students in his work, he began a tradition of undergraduate research that continues to this day.(26)

As university president, Hessler continued to influence the future of chemistry at Millikin by proposing the construction of a building dedicated to the sciences. Although he did not live to see the realization of his dream, construction began on a new science building on May 24, 1953.(27) The new facility was dedicated on September 21, 1955 and named Scovill Science Hall(28), in honor of Guy and Rose Scovill, two then-recently-deceased residents who gave more than one million dollars to Decatur's educational, religious and charitable organizations.(29)

Hessler's contributions to Millikin University are commemorated with a plaque in Scovill Science Hall and with a residence hall that bears his name.

James H. Ransom was the first of four Millikin chemistry professors to serve the department for at least 20 years. He remained a member of the chemistry faculty from 1921 until 1941. The trajectory of his career bears some resemblance to that of Hessler. He also received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1899 but under the direction of Julius Stieglitz.(30) Stieglitz, like Nef, was published in both American and German journals.(31) Thus, for 33 of its first 38 years and for one-third of its existence, the Millikin chemistry department benefitted from the wisdom of a product of the University of Chicago.

Ransom also contributed to his discipline by writing textbooks and other course materials, including General Chemistry in 1915, Experimental General Chemistry in 1916, Outline of Qualitative Analysis in 1922, and Experimental Chemistry: General and Qualitative in 1938.

Other faculty members of note include the following (years at Millikin in parentheses):

Charles Meserve (1903-1907), Millikin's first chemistry professor;

Esther McCredie (1918-1921), Millikin's first woman chemistry professor;

Carl Weatherbee (1952-1982), Millikin's longest-serving chemistry professor;

Homer Smith (1985-1997), named the 1996 Illinois College Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching;

Mauri Ditzler (1994-1999), professor of analytical chemistry, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and nationally-known developer of discovery or guided inquiry chemistry;

Anne Rammelsberg (1994-present), Millikin's first full-time biochemist; and

George Bennett (1997-present), Millikin's most recent addition and first second-generation chemistry professor (George's father Richard Bennett taught at Millikin from 1961 to 1963).

Over 350 alumni of the Millikin chemistry department live today in 40 states, one U.S. commonwealth and two countries. They, and the alumni who are now deceased, have all achieved a measure of success in their chosen fields. However, several have made notable contributions to the fields of chemistry, biochemistry, chemical engineering and chemical education.

John Leighty, a Decatur resident, became attracted to chemistry after performing undergraduate research and was graduated from Millikin in 1931. He matriculated at Purdue University, where he received both his Master's and Ph.D. degrees. Upon completion of his doctorate, Dr. Leighty began a career at Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis. He was a member of the team that first produced penicillin for the company in the 1940s and was involved in developing, producing and supervising the production of such pharmaceuticals as erythromycin, vancomycin, streptomycin and propoxyphene. His 33-year career was capped by his tenure as Executive Director of Scientific Research, a position which made him responsible for 650 Lilly scientists in seven research divisions.

Leighty's love for Millikin and gratitude for his undergraduate education compelled him to give generously of his time and money to his alma mater. He served on the Board of Trustees from 1967 until 1970. He and his wife, a Millikin biology alumna, established the John and Ula Leighty Research Award in Biology, and later he began the John and Ula Leighty Science Scholars Program. Leighty served as the Honorary Chair of the Campaign for Science and donated over $2 million toward a new science building that is scheduled to open in the 2001-2002 academic year.

In 1962, Leighty received the Alumni Merit Award. Nine years later, he and his wife were named Alumni of the Year. Leighty received the Millikin University Presidential Leadership Award in 1995. Three laboratories in the new science building will be named in his honor.

Dr. Leighty passed away on February 27, 2000.

Robert Penneman was graduated from Millikin in 1941. He completed Master's and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Illinois. Penneman has more than 50 years of experience in inorganic and nuclear chemistry, including 37 years as manager of Los Alamos National Laboratory. He now serves the lab as a consultant after semi-retirement. During his career, he patented a method to remove water from rocket fuel. He also taught for several years at the University of California and was an adjunct professor for the University of New Mexico.

Millikin awarded Penneman an honorary Doctor of Science degree in 1961. He received the 1995 Glenn T. Seaborg Actinide Separations Award for outstanding accomplishment in the field of actinide separations science. In 1999, he received the Alumni Merit Award from Millikin.

Other noteworthy chemistry alumni include the following individuals in chronological order of graduation (year of graduation in parentheses):

James Fritz (1946), Distinguished Professor of chemistry at Iowa State University, developer of ion chromatography and solid phase extraction, recipient of the 1976 ACS Award in Chromatography, the 1985 ACS Analytical Chemistry Award, the 1991 Dal Nogare Award and the 1969 Millikin Alumni Merit Award;

Maurice Armstrong (1948), who came to Millikin on the promise of being allowed to perform undergraduate research and taught in the Millikin chemistry department from 1952 until 1957 prior to becoming a research associate at Dupont;

Wilfred Chen-Sun Ling (1950), retired senior development engineer, Abbott Labs;

Guido Guidotti (1954), Higgins Professor of Biochemistry, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University;

Paul Hung (1956), retired as Assistant Vice President, Wyeth-Ayerst and currently President of Global Biotech, Inc. and Chairman of the Board of RDNA Corporation;

Richard Quisenberry (1956), former Vice President of [World-wide] Research at Dupont, Executive Director of AMTEX Partnership (a research and development partnership between the integrated textile industry and twelve of the largest R&D laboratories of the United States government) and one of the most talented sprinters to ever attend Millikin;(32)

Albert Ho (1957), chairman of Yuen Shen Enterprise Co., Ltd., a paper milling company in Taichung, Taiwan;

Ken Spitzer (1964), Assistant Dean of Sciences at Washington State University;

Bruce Kowalski (1965), professor of chemistry at the University of Washington and developer of chemometrics;

Henry Scobell (1970), senior research fellow, A.E. Staley Manufacturing, Co.;

Paul Rosteck (1976), senior research scientist of BioResearch Technologies and Proteins at Eli Lilly and Company and contributor to the Human Genome Project;

Gordon Weatherbee (1976), senior chemical engineer at W.R. Grace & Co.;

Mark Matlock (1977), research director at Archer Daniels Midland;

John Hoots (1978), senior research scientist at Nalco Corp. and member of the Inventors Hall of Fame;

Cathy Johnson (1989), research chemist at Nalco Corp.;

Ann Louise Sumner (1996), graduate student at Purdue University studying chemistry north of the Arctic Circle who found that formaldehyde is produced photochemically at the air-snow interface;(33) and

Emilie Porter (1998), graduate student at the University of Wisconsin who recently helped develop a non-natural peptide that is active against four species of bacteria.(34)

Since 1985, an average of approximately eight chemistry majors have been graduated each year from Millikin. An annual average of about 50% of these alumni pursue graduate or professional degrees.

The University and the Department of Chemistry Today

At the dawn of its second century, Millikin University is a private, four-year, comprehensive, primarily undergraduate institution that consists of four main divisions: the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Fine Arts, the Tabor School of Business and the School of Nursing. The Department of Chemistry within the College of Arts and Sciences has one full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty member representing each of the five main sub-disciplines (Biochemistry was added in 1994). The department has been certified by the Committee on Professional Training of the American Chemical Society since 1988. Although students who major in chemistry choose one of four emphases (research, biochemistry, business or secondary education), all chemistry majors have been required to complete at least one semester of undergraduate research since 1986 and at least one semester of research at Millikin under the direction of a Millikin faculty member since 1998. Making undergraduate research a priority is one of the oldest and proudest traditions of the department.


According to Alfred North Whitehead:

"[t]he antithesis between a technical and a liberal education is fallacious.
There can be no adequate technical education which is not liberal, and no
liberal education which is not technical: that is, no education which does not
impart both technique and intellectual vision."(35)

For one hundred years, Millikin University has operated with this philosophy. The school was founded and shaped, whether by coincident or by intent, according to the model set by the University of Chicago. In that sense, it is fitting that the life of Millikin University began in the twentieth century. Part of a liberal education involves introducing students to the best traditions of the culture. A modern, western university was arguably in the best position to introduce students to the modern, western elements of the liberal tradition, viz. the fusion of classical and vocational education.

The faculty and alumni of the Department of Chemistry have left a significant mark on Millikin University since its infancy. The words of Chicago's Professor Nef serve as both a description of the Millikin department's past and a prediction for its future:

"‘There is not the slightest reason why this country should not develop men
[and women] who love chemistry for its own sake and who will be willing
to sacrifice much for it.’"(36)

That is the ambition of the Millikin chemistry faculty, and to that end the faculty will devote their strength and enthusiasm in the department's second century.


The author thanks Jason Butterick, Coordinator of Centennial Archives for Millikin University, and Anne-Marie Berk for information about Millikin's chemistry faculty and alumni. The author thanks Renee McKinney and Jay Satterfield, librarians at the University of Chicago, for information about that institution's chemistry faculty and alumni.

References and Notes

1. 1996-1997 Millikin University Bulletin, Millikin University, Decatur, IL, 1996, 5.

2. "President Theodore Roosevelt Comes Today to Dedicate the James Millikin University," Decatur Herald, June 4, 1903, 2. The original James Millikin University consisted of two campuses, one in Decatur and one in Lincoln, Illinois. The Decatur campus was formally known as the Decatur College and Industrial School. The university was consolidated at Decatur under the name "Millikin University" in 1953.

3. R.J. Storr, A History of the University of Chicago: Harper's University: The Beginnings, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1966, 305.

4. Ref. 3, p. 133.

5. Ref. 1.

6. Ref. 3, p. 31.

7. O.R. Kyle, Abraham Lincoln in Decatur, Vantage Press, New York, NY, 1957, 100.

8. D.C. Irwin, Decatur Serving Others: A Pictorial History, G. Bradley Publishing, Inc.,
St. Louis, MO, 1998, 22-26.

9. Ref. 3, p. 11.

10. Ref. 7, pp. 56-59.

11. Ref. 7, pp. 100-115.

12. J.C. Hessler, "On Alkyl Malonic Nitriles and Their Derivatives," Am. Chem. J., 1899,

22, 169-198.

13. D.S. Tarbell, A.T. Tarbell, Essays on The History of Organic Chemistry in the United States, 1875-1955, Folio Publishers, Nashville, TN, 1986, 41.

14. Ref. 3, p. 72.

15. Ref. 3, p. 127.

16. "J.C. Hessler, Millikin President, Dies," Decatur Herald and Review, July 30, 1944, 1,3.

17. Ref. 8, p. 134.

18. J.C. Hessler, A.L. Smith, Essentials of Chemistry, Rev. ed. with laboratory manual,
B.H. Sanborn & Co., Boston, MA, 1912, 10.

19. Ref. 18, p. 91.

20. Ref. 18, p. 539.

21. J.C. Hessler, The First Year of Chemistry, Benj. H. Sanborn & Co., Chicago, IL,
1931, iii.

22. Ref. 21.

23. M.R. Matthews, Science Teaching: The Role of History and Philosophy of Science,
Routledge, New York, NY, 1994.

24. Ref. 21, pp. 375, 385.

25. J.C. Hessler, "Alkylation of Cyanoacetic Ester," Am. Chem. J., 1913, 35, 990-994.

26. J.C. Hessler, "Alkyl Cyanoacetic Acids," J. Am. Chem. Soc., 1916, 38, 909-916. In the introduction to the paper, Hessler credits three students with contributions to the project. Margaret Hessler, one of the three students and daughter of the professor, went on to become a noted researcher on nutrition under the name Margaret Hessler Brooks at the University of Chicago. In a sad twist of circumstance, according to Ref. 16, her husband died the same day as her father.

27. "Ground is Broken for New Science Building at Millikin," Decatur Herald, May 25, 1953, 3.

28. "Millikin Dedicates Scovill Science Hall," Decatur Review, September 21, 1955, 32.

29. "Decatur Diary: Scovill Gifts Many, Varied," Decatur Herald and Review, May 1, 1966, 51.

30. J.H. Ransom, "On the Molecular Rearrangement of o-Aminophenylethyl Carbonate to o-Oxyphenylurethane," Am. Chem. J., 1900, 23, 1-50.

31. Ref. 13.

32. Quisenberry once held one of the three fastest times in the world in the 220-yard dash (curved track).

33. A.L. Sumner, P.B. Shepson, "Snowpack production of formaldehyde and its effect on
the Arctic troposphere," Nature, 1999, 398, 230-233.

34. E.A. Porter, X. Wang, H.-S. Lee, B. Weisblum, S.H. Gellman, "Non-haemolytic
b-amino-acid oligomers," Nature, 2000, 404, 565.

35. A.N. Whitehead, "Technical Education and Its Relation to Science and Literature," The Aims of Education and Other Essays, Williams and Norgate, London, 1947, 73.

36.  Ref. 3, p. 72.