Ralph A. Beebe

Massachusetts Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus and Amherst class of 1920
Interviewed on January 4, 1978

Audio file

Subject coverage

  • Reasons for entering Amherst College as a student
  • Graduate study at Princeton and service in the Student Army Training Corps
  • Deciding on Chemistry as a career
  • Amherst's Chemistry faculty in the 1920's
  • Research at end arrangements with Bristol University
  • Students who later distinguished themselves in chemistry
  • Amherst's record in the research by Faculty and graduates
  • Effect of facilities on performance
  • Effect of 1947 Curriculum on Chemistry Department
  • Efforts to create an interdisciplinary course with Professor Soller of the Physics Department
  • Comments on the 1947 curriculum's first year science course
  • Reasons for growth of the Chemistry Department
  • The pre-World War II Science Club


[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions.]

Ralph A. Beebe 
January 4, 1978 
At his home on Blake Field 
Horace W. Hewlett 
For: Amherst College 

HWH: Ralph, I looked up a little about you and saw that you were born in Monson, went to Monson Academy, and came to Amherst in 1916. What brought you to Amherst instead of some other institution? 

BEEBE: Well, it will interest you that I graduated from Monson Academy in 1915 and took the entrance examinations for Harvard and was admitted, but I decided that I wanted to come to Amherst so I took an extra year to study Latin, Cicero and Virgil, in order to satisfy Amherst’s Latin requirement. Now my reason for coming to Amherst was that I was a little bit skittish about Harvard. I was a country boy on a small farm and at the time I felt a little reluctant to go to the Big City. In retrospect, I think this was right. I think I’d have been rather overwhelmed by it. Also, the Cushman family of Monson had several men who had come to Amherst. One of these was Rufus Cushman who came to Amherst in my class, the Class of 1920. His grandson, Rob, graduated from Amherst a couple of years ago and is doing graduate work in biology now. 

Rufus and I were in the same Sunday School class, taught by his Aunt Hattie, and the Cushmans were very much respected. They were mill owners in the town and very much a part of the church and all the things that went on. Also, I was quite young to go away to college. I had been number one in my Academy class and it seemed a little ridiculous to make that move, but I think it was right. It turned out exceedingly right for me, because I ended up finally on the Amherst faculty and I couldn’t ask for anything better than that. 

HWH: I think it’s amazing, Ralph, that except for the three years you studied at Princeton for your doctorate, you’ve been at Amherst since 1916. Only Lim Sprague, your classmate, has been here longer than you. 

BEEBE: He was here in Amherst. His father was rector at the Episcopal Church. 

HWH: But he didn’t do his graduate work until later. I believe he got his doctorate as late as 1941. 

BEEBE: He did part of his graduate work much earlier. I went to Princeton and so did he. He was asked to teach at Amherst right after his graduation, as I recall it. And he taught one or maybe two years and then he came to Princeton for his graduate courses. I think he and I overlapped there for a year or so. He was there two years at the time, and then after that was working on his thesis, but Amherst called him back before he had completed his doctorate. So it turned out that that was delayed quite a while. 

HWH: Were you appointed by President Meiklejohn? 

BEEBE: Oh no! I was appointed because of the Meiklejohn fracas. The man who preceded me was George Scatchard (Class of ‘13) and he had been teaching at least four years, because when I was a senior at Amherst I was sort of undergraduate assistant to Scatchard-- in laboratories and that kind of thing. So that would have been one year and I was away three years. I had finished my third year of graduate work and had finished my doctoral thesis and it was accepted. I had not had my final defense of the thesis. I was home in Monson that summer of 1923 for a month or so helping my father with the haying and one day Robert Cushman came over to the farm (we didn’t have a telephone at that time) and said that Georgie Olds had telephoned him (Georgie Olds had already succeeded Meiklejohn) and he wanted me to come to Amherst for an interview, which I did. I don’t know whether I’d have come up on the train, there was good train service between Monson and Amherst on the Central Vermont then, or probably, I came by car, with my father’s car. (He’d just about then got a car.) I talked to Georgie Olds and Tom Esty and they offered me a job. I accepted and I was here all the rest of my teaching career. 

That autumn I went back to Princeton and made the final defense of my thesis and finished my doctorate. This was about the time when people began to do post-doctoral work before taking their final job, and I think it would have been extremely good for me, professionally, had I done that. I think that my transition from graduate school to Amherst was a little too quick in a way. 

One thing that had happened-- which seemed just fine to me at the time but was really unfortunate, I think-- was that I had been in the SATC (the Student Army Training Corps) at Amherst and in the middle of the summer of 1918 I had a call from the commanding officer: Was I interested in going to Plattsburg for officer’s training? On the telephone I said I would. In the SATC we weren’t really committed to the Army. So I went to Plattsburg and received my commission and as a result of that I was in the Army only until the armistice, which was November 1918, and returned to Amherst in my junior year. 

Well, Amherst adjusted to this and they gave us credit for a full year’s work from January 1st to June, I can’t remember. At the time, the natural course for me to take was organic chemistry and I got credit for a year of organic chemistry as everybody else did for the work from January to June. Now that seemed just fine to me. It did throw me into physical chemistry for my graduate work because I could sense that I didn’t have a very strong foundation in organic chemistry. Well that hampered me some, because I wouldn’t have felt comfortable teaching organic chemistry as I returned to Amherst. In a small college, at that time, I think it would have been better to be able to step in and do everything. Which Bob Whitney could. He had come along just a little later from the University of Minnesota and he was ready and qualified to teach anything in undergraduate chemistry. That’s just a little side comment. 

HWH: Do you recall when you decided that you’d make your career in chemistry, or why? 

BEEBE: Well, I’ll answer the “why” first. When I was an undergraduate at Amherst, the staff was Professor Hopkins, senior member, Professor Doughty, and Professor Zinn. John Zinn had a very outgoing personality and I think in my sophomore year he was my instructor; I recall that I was very much attracted to him as a person and I think that perhaps he influenced me toward chemistry. He didn’t try to get me to go into chemistry. By the time I came back from the Army in 1918, I think Zinn was gone. He went to Worcester Tech. He had been a member of the anti-Meiklejohn group with the old guard of Professors Loomis, Doughty, and Mike Smith, and so on. I don’t know just what went on, but I think Meiklejohn didn’t find it expedient to give him tenure. 

HWH: Is that when he brought George Scatchard in? 

BEEBE: Yes. And in retrospect Scatchard was a much better chemist than Zinn. Zinn went to Worcester Tech and later to Gettysburg, which had been his undergraduate college, and spent the rest of his career there. The last I knew he was alive; he’d be in his nineties now. And he was very much admired and beloved there. There’s a life-size painting of him in the entrance to the chemistry laboratory at Gettysburg which was built years ago. He was very much respected here; he was fundamentally a teacher and a very friendly sort of personality. But, as you know, Scatchard went from here to M.I.T. and had a very successful career there. Probably Zinn was a better teacher of sophomores or freshmen than Scatchard, but when you began to get into new developments in chemistry and so on... I think both Zinn and Scatchard probably ended up where they should have. 

HWH: Well that raises a question, too, Ralph. When I was a student here, the two senior members of the department were Hoppy (Professor Hopkins) and Professor Doughty. I took a little chemistry at Amherst. I remember Hoppy-- as we all called him, I guess everyone did-- was a delightful person and made the elementary course in chemistry very interesting and at times exciting. I think, in part, because of his personality. Was he that way? And we felt on the other hand that Professor Doughty was the more serious, more investigative, more research-oriented of the two. Was that the feeling you had?

BEEBE: Oh yes. Hoppy’s scholarly interest was in the history of chemistry and that’s going way back to alchemy. There’s a little book of his-- I have a copy-- Alchemy, Child of Greek Philosophy (1934). I know he had some contact in England with a Professor Sarton, in one of the universities, that he kept up. When he wasn’t teaching, he was working on the origins of chemistry. His chemistry was perhaps adequate for beginners, but even then in retrospect, I think, was not quite attuned to the latest developments. His graduate work at Johns Hopkins had been on some properties of potassium permanganate. (You know, that’s the purple solution you paint on your skin for poison ivy and it turns brown.) His main work was in the field of analytical chemistry-- and surely, old-fashioned analytical chemistry with balances and burettes and attempts at refinement of measurement. But along in the ‘twenties or slightly earlier, the concept of atomic structure, electronic and nuclear, the idea of that kind of an atom was developing, and Hoppy was not as aware of this new field as some of his younger colleagues. He tended to be, as you say, a very delightful person, very dedicated, very approachable by students. But of course many people as they approach retirement probably are not right up to the minute. 

Professor Doughty, on the other hand, was, as you say, much more investigative. He didn’t get out a lot of publications but he did have some. I don’t know whether Bob Whitney mentioned this to you-- did he say anything about Professor Doughty’s publications? 

HWH: He mentioned one with a Professor Waters over in England. 

BEEBE: That’s it. He told you about that. Because this man said that Professor Doughty had been five or six years ahead of his time in a concept of interpretation which people got onto later on. So he had it in him to be an investigator and he had an investigator’s point of view, I think. 

HWH: Bob explained, too, that Professor Doughty did not have a Bachelor’s degree. 

BEEBE: No. He’d been a businessman for several years, for some family reasons, I think, but he left that career and went on to graduate school at Johns Hopkins. 

HWH: I tried to pinpoint with Harold Plough when, in his opinion, modern biology was being taught at Amherst, when it began to be taught, because in the old days, following down from Hitchcock and Seelye and others, biology and chemistry were not so much important disciplines, as I understand it, as they were proof of the power and authority of God. Hitchcock particularly saw geology as proof of God’s greatness and in biology, I think Harold would agree, that the modern concept, modern attitude toward teaching and studying biology came, really, after the turn of the century. Perhaps well after. I wonder if you would feel that might have been so in chemistry, too? 

BEEBE: Hoppy was certainly here at the turn of the century. I can’t remember when Professor Doughty came, but I should think 1905 or thereabouts. 

HWH: Hoppy came in 1894. Doughty came after 1900. 

BEEBE: I’m sure. And at the time Snell Hall ‘96 was a member of the department. He was related to Martha Cowles, her brother as a matter of fact. 

HWH: Yes, E. Snell Hall. I imagine it’s Ebenezer after Ebenezer Strong Snell. (Wrong: his first name was Elliott-- Ed.) 

BEEBE: I dare say. And let’s see what was the connection to the house where the Silvers live now, where Charlie Morgan used to live? 

HWH: That’s called the Snell House. 

BEEBE: Snell Hall left Amherst voluntarily, I think, because the family business needed him out in Western New York state. He had his Ph.D. 

When I was here as a student, the Amherst Chemistry Department was completely dominated by Johns Hopkins. Doughty, Hopkins, Hall (who had left), and Zinn were all Johns Hopkins products. I imagine Zinn probably was brought in at the time Snell Hall left, but I’m not quite sure about that. (Correct: 1913-- Ed.) 

HWH: I did check, Ralph. Doughty came in 1907 and retired in 1941. So that he probably was the first modern teacher of chemistry in the sense of. 

BEEBE: Yes, and one other point: I was speaking about Bob Whitney’s being able to teach anything. Doughty taught organic chemistry but he also taught a sophomore course which introduced physical chemistry to a very considerable extent. Physical chemistry was coming in at that time. So he was a very versatile man and willing to tackle anything that came along. 

HWH: Did you ever have any thought or desire to go into teaching graduate chemistry? 

BEEBE: Well I certainly had thought of it, but I fell into this position at Amherst and it was so much what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be that I never made any effort to get into graduate chemistry. What happened in my case, with respect to the feasibility of doing research, was this. Before I came here in 1923, my research director at Princeton was an Englishman, Hugh Stott Taylor, who was quite a young man, ten years older than I, perhaps, and a very enthusiastic and able researcher. In addition to supervising my graduate work, he, more than anyone else, got me into a research minded state of mind. I think my attitude, though I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time, was that research was something that I couldn’t help trying to do. In other words, the concept of the investigative point of view. 

HWH: I was reading in the Graduates Quarterly of 1926, when Professor Sam Williams gave a talk to the Alumni, he upheld the view that you HAD to be active in research of some kind to be a good teacher. 

BEEBE: Yes. Well I would still support that. It seemed to me that at the very least you had to be research-minded and you had to be somewhat unhappy if you weren’t doing it along with your undergraduate teaching. But then what made it possible for me to get off the ground in research came in 1932. If you look in the literature or in my list of publications, there were very few between 1923 and 1932. Well, there were some reasons. In one year over in Monson my mother died, my father fell off the roof and broke both his legs, and I was tied up with my family to some degree. Yet, all the time I was wanting to come back to do research and I did have some things going. In the summers I would have something set up and work on it myself; I didn’t have anybody to do it for me. But sometime about 1930 there were certain private organizations, one the so-called Research Corporation, which gave out money to support research. I applied for a small grant and had one or two people who were perhaps part-time students, part-time research assistants. But I didn’t have too many research publications in the whole period from ‘23 to ‘32, which you’d think might be almost disastrous for a young man. 

In 1932 I had my first sabbatic leave and I asked Hugh Taylor, my research director at Princeton, what he would advise. I thought of going to England. He said, “Well, I would advise that you NOT try to go to Oxford or Cambridge. Americans are a dime a dozen to them and (I don’t know how he put it) they’re not going to be all het up about having one more American around.” He did advise me to go to Bristol in the west of England, and to one man in particular, W. E. Garner, who was an outstanding physical chemist in the area of surface chemistry where I’d started at Princeton and where I’d continued my interest in Amherst. That turned out to be a most fortunate move for me because I did go to Bristol for a semester (we were entitled to one semester’s leave at that time) and set up an apparatus and got a small paper out when I was there. As a result of the contact at Bristol, I had a series of Bristol Ph.D. graduates as post-doctoral associates at Amherst. By that time money to support research was becoming available; this was before anything like NIH or NSF funds were available.

HWH: Ralph, I believe Harold Plough was the first to attract outside money in the form of grants. 

BEEBE: That’s right. 

HWH: With the Rockefeller Foundation, and I think you were the first with the American Philosophical Society? 

BEEBE: Well at least I had a grant. I don’t remember how that came about; it may again have been through Hugh Taylor telling me what to do, you see. We had a sort of empathy for each other which held up for a long time. I’m sure that I was encouraged by him to try to develop the use of outside money and by the success that Harold had had in biology. He had a going thing several years before we developed anything like that in chemistry. But I was going to say that as a result of going to Bristol and having the contact with W. E. Garner, we started the post-doctoral program with his sending over here Dennis A. Dowden, who had finished his graduate work at Bristol and came over here to spend a year. This was 1937 or ‘38, just before World War II, and he was a very well-trained and very able young scientist. Later he ended up as a chemist for ICI, Imperial Chemicals, one of the first institutions in England where they were interested in fundamental research supported by an industry. They had that point of view. And he ended up-- I think he may have retired by now; probably not-- as a sort of freelance researcher who was more or less permitted to do what he wanted to do, rather than what the company thought ought to be done next. 

After the War there was a whole series of post-docs from England. I can’t tell-- I think 15 or so altogether, one for each year or so beginning ‘47 or ‘48. This was the backbone of my, well, I would say not only pair of hands, but heads to work on research here. I’m inclined to think that if you get an able man and give him some space to work and a little money for apparatus, he’ll produce something. 

HWH: Well, Amherst certainly has. We were talking earlier that way beyond its size, Amherst has produced, or at least men who later went into chemistry have come through Amherst. I think probably we have a pre-eminent record among liberal arts colleges. 

BEEBE: I had a rather amusing illustration of that about two years ago at a meeting. There’s a very good man named Porter in a field closely related to mine in surface chemistry at UMass. He hadn’t been at UMass for more than six or eight years. We were at a meeting and talking with another chemist from, we’ll say, the University of Minnesota and the latter assumed that Porter, who had quite a little standing among chemists in that division of the American Chemical Society, came from this College. He came from Amherst town, therefore Amherst College. Porter was a little put out by this and said, “What do I have to do to make it understood that I’m at the University of Massachusetts?” That was as recently as perhaps eight years ago. It was a little unfair I think. Of course, my opinion of UMass is that they’ve got some very good people there but that they’ve grown too far, too fast, and they’re not necessarily by definition good chemists or geologists or whatnot because they are there, 

HWH: Can you attribute the fact that Amherst has encouraged or bred so many chemists to anything in particular? Were they that way when they came? 

BEEBE: Well I’m trying to think. Among the undergraduates, three who come to mind rather early on are Paul Bartlett, who was at Harvard most of his career; and Dave Ingliss who’s now in the Physics Department at UMass retired. (I don’t know whether he’s retired or not, but he’s been several years at UMass.) He spent most of his career in Chicago at the Argonne National Laboratory. Another student, Ted Palmer, of the same class also became a scientist. I don’t know how all this came about, but they were all in the Class of ‘28. 

We’d been in the old Fayerweather Laboratory and I had arranged, probably with Sam Williams, to use a little room down in the basement of Fayerweather. Dave Ingliss and Paul Bartlett had a little laboratory set up there and some experiments going in what I think must have been their freshman year. I can’t for the life of me remember how this came about, except that I was the only faculty contact they had. They were doing something in surface chemistry. Nothing publishable came out of it, but there was that spirit of research blossoming out in them and there must have been some kind of, well, enough interaction with me to encourage it anyway. 

Then at the end of Paul Bartlett’s junior year, Hoppy and Paul Bartlett and I went, in the summer, to the Institute of Chemistry which was held at State College, Pennsylvania. One of the prime movers for that was Frank C. Whitmore, the father of the Frank Whitmore who is an Amherst graduate in the Class of 1938 and a geologist at the Smithsonian now. He was also one of Al Romer’s students at Harvard. Somehow or other, Paul was developing as a sort of professionally-minded chemist as an undergraduate, and I honestly feel that any influence that I may have had was more that of a friend-- I mean we did some things together. 

The summer just after Bartlett, Ingliss, and Palmer had graduated, they and George Whicher and I went to the White Mountains for a five-or-six-day hike. We started near Randolph and went not through the major White Mountains, but north through the Mahoosic Range, a smaller range of mountains that’s quite wild. I can’t begin to say what the connection with George Whicher was, but there was a sort of camaraderie. 


HWH: You were talking about the closeness between a teacher and students in those days. 

BEEBE: Yes, and I think it was NOT all gung-ho science; I think it was sort of personal, too. And I can’t say why that was. I don’t mean that Paul Bartlett went to graduate work and became a professor of chemistry at Harvard because he and I went on the Mahoosic Trail together, but friendship and research seemed to be tied in together. 

HWH: We started by saying that Amherst has a track record in publications by both faculty and graduates which, I believe, is unsurpassed by a College of its size. 

BEEBE: Well I’d look at Wesleyan before I made that statement, because I think they’ve done very well, too. Of course, in recent years they’ve stressed a Masters degree more than we have. 

HWH: Dick Fink did a piece, or gave me information for a piece, for the Alumni Magazine in which it was said that Amherst for its size was the leader. Wesleyan was in there. Williams was not. 

BEEBE: Yes. I don’t know how you’d measure it. How was it measured? 

HWII: It was the number of abstracts, I believe, reported for a certain period. And then measured according to the size of the institution. 

BEEBE: There is a publication research periodical, Science Citation Indeces, which does just that. You can look up any institution or individual. 

HWH: I did look up only a moment ago when Moore was opened and it was 1929. I’m sure when you moved into Moore that it was an enormous change from Fayerweather, which was completed in 1894. Does a building and that kind of facility attract or encourage research, or would it be the people more than the building? 

BEEBE: I’m sure the latter. I don’t remember any great change that went on inside me because we were in Moore rather than Fayerweather. If you had a room to work in and an idea and a will to do it, then, yes, Moore was a little better equipped in the way of some facilities-- perhaps more for organic chemistry than my field: steam heaters at every desk and vacuum systems and so on. I don’t know, my work was so specialized in a way that what I needed was working space and special equipment which would be bought for a purpose and didn’t necessarily come along with the building. So I think my answer to that is no. 

HWH: You taught under six presidents, I believe. It would have been Olds, Pease, King, Cole, Plimpton, and of course Bill Ward. Does any one of those strike you as being more supportive of chemistry or the sciences than another? 

BEEBE: Well, let’s see. Stanley King came in about 1932, and he was here fourteen years, I think, and Charlie Cole was here about fourteen years, about the same, and then Cal Plimpton. Another person who’d been here at another time might be inclined to give a different answer, but my period of what you could say development in research would have been mostly under King and Cole. I told you that the period between 1923 and 1930, which would have been Olds and Pease, was a period of not exactly frustration but a period when I was, for some reason or other, not really getting started with research as much as I did later. Stanley King, I think, had relatively little feel for science, but he did have the ability to judge people, and if he had people in whom he had confidence, he would “leave it to the experts.” I don’t know how the other people felt, but I have the feeling that in fields more related, which he understood better than he did science, he may have gotten into some people’s hair. I’d say in political science or economics. But with science, he was no scientist himself and was the first to admit it, and so he was inclined to take Harold Plough’s very good word, for example, as to what was good for biology at Amherst and follow it. I think King must have been involved in the decision to bring in the Rockefeller grants, which was certainly an innovation for Amherst, and that came through his confidence in Harold Plough, probably Otto Glaser, too, at that time. I have no recollection that Stanley King in any way made it difficult for me to develop science; and insofar as I showed signs of developing it, he applauded. But he wasn’t telling me how to do it and perhaps wouldn’t have been a good first-hand judge as to whether the science was good or bad, you see. 

Now Charlie Cole’s intellectual interests were broader than Stanley’s. I was always impressed by his interviews with candidates when you’d take them into his office to be interviewed. Charlie would get right down to: “All right, you’ve done a doctor’s thesis in chemistry. Now would you mind telling about it?” He would say, “I’m not a scientist, but could you explain to me what you did?” I remember one fellow we brought here from the University of Toronto and Charlie said to him: “Do you think you could convey to me, make me see just what you hoped to get out of your research and what came out of it?” This fellow thought a minute and he said: “No, I don’t think I can.” And he lost the job right there. (Laughter) I knew it as well as could be! There was quite a difference between Charlie and Stanley, but they each had their points. I don’t know how it came about, but when Charlie was here teaching, one time I invited him to come down to the Lab and see some research results I was getting, because I respected his intellect very much, and he did come. We had quite a talk at the time and I remember Charlie’s remark, I think it was a little over generous, but he said, “I think that’s as impressive as Hell!” Charlie was a man of broad interests and when it turned out that he came later as president, he said he had toyed a little bit with being a scientist. I think he could have been anything he wanted to be. 

HWH: Well then along comes Cal, who had a scientific background. 

BEEBE: Yes. Well, he came in about 1960 and I retired in ‘66, and I don’t know what to say about that. Cal came in with a feeling that he was interested in what was going on in science. Somehow, we never got together on this and I haven’t very much that I can say, I think, about my rapport with Cal in respect to science. On the teaching side we’d had that whole business of the then New Curriculum, which really started under Stanley King. Charlie Cole came in at the very beginning of it. 

HWH: I had a couple of questions on that Ralph, because I believe you were on the Committee that Stanley appointed under Gail Kennedy’s chairmanship. 

BEEBE: Yes. 

HWH: Well, then Charlie had been chairman of the Alumni Committee that was not nearly so detailed as the faculty committee but they published that report called “Amherst Tomorrow,” and I’m sure it’s in part because of that, that Charlie was offered the job when Stanley left. But I wondered if you noted any effect upon chemistry, either the enrollment of students or a greater interest in chemistry, because the New Curriculum of ‘47 exposed ALL students to science in some form. 

BEEBE: Well, we did have a period in the early ‘50s when there were a lot of students who went into graduate work in chemistry. There was a period there about ‘51 to ‘54 when we would have, say, ten honors students in chemistry and five of them would go into medicine and five would go into Ph.D. work in chemistry. That shifted over toward medicine later on, partly because physics was developing and I think especially after Arnold Arons came. He had an appeal to some of the best students which I think rather encouraged them to go into physics. Then somewhere along in the ‘sixties it began to be apparent, I think, that pure chemistry, I mean graduate work in chemistry unrelated to anything else, began to wane nationally. I think many of the better students were interested in what chemistry could do for the biological field, for instance. Bio-chemistry was developing rapidly, and so I think the idea of being a pure chemist, sort of isolated from other departments as an undergraduate or in graduate work or in a career, began to wane.

HWH: I’ve often wondered whether there was any tension between the pre-meds and the pre-professionals in chemistry or biology or physics. 

BEEBE: Well if there was, I wasn’t aware of it. 

HWH: You mean doctors make good citizens, too. 

BEEBE: Yes. And of course for a long period there, I think Professor Doughty had had the pre-meds sort of unofficially under his wing. And certainly there were other wings up in the Biology Department, such as Oscar Schotté and others. 

HWH: We were talking before of how it’s impossible to be a good, let’s say, chemist now and not be associated with some other area or discipline. And here we’re talking about how bio-chemistry and bio-physics have come along. As you well know, there’s now a neuroscience program listed in the catalog; it’s not a department, but it’s a conglomerate of chemists, biologists, psychologists, physicists. I’ve wondered whether a small liberal arts college has the resources and the interests to maintain such a program. I can see it on the university level, but I think this is the only undergraduate program of its kind in the country. 

BEEBE: I think I would not agree that it couldn’t be done in a liberal arts college, and I think I would say it should be done if possible. This depends fundamentally, I think, on the make-up of the faculty. There’s also a question of the willingness to perhaps step out into a field in which you are not sure you’re all that proficient. And to a certain degree, I might almost say there’s an element of daring about it that some individuals would have and others would not. I think that perhaps a precursor of that point of view may have come in the concessions which the members of the various science departments made to the New Curriculum-- I mean to the then New Curriculum, to the “Kennedy” Curriculum if you like. It certainly was less convenient to figure out how you could teach, adapting chemistry and physics together, than to go on keeping them separate. The first attempt before the New Curriculum was set up that I know about was an attempt that Ted Soller and I made. It must have been just after the war when we had an experimental course, a two-semester course in physics and chemistry. Ted gave the first half and I attended the lectures; and I gave the second half. I felt about that, that about the only thing we demonstrated was that at least two people who wanted to do the best thing for the College and who could get along well with each other (it was very easy to get along with Ted) could do something of that sort or could try it anyway. I think I, in particular, fell quite far short of using very much of the physics that Ted had put out in the chemistry part. But we did at least have a two-semester course in which a physicist and a chemist sat and listened to each other.

HWH: This would have been 1946-47? 

BEEBE: Somewhere along in there. This was an elective course and we may have had about 35 students. 

HWH: Credit was certainly given for it. 

BEEBE: Oh yes. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that was the first anywhere-near formal attempt to do something. Then I felt that in the setting-up of the New Curriculum several people had to make some rather great sacrifices. I think Bailey Brown was probably in charge of the mathematics contribution to that two-year program, and I think this was asking quite a lot of him; he paid close attention to the physics courses. Well, I’m not sure. Later on several people, Bob Whitney and several of the younger people, taught in the first-year physics-chemistry sequence, taught in the physics department in the physicists’ area as well. And again, Bob Whitney’s great versatility showed there. I did not do that. I guess I can’t quite analyze my reasons why, now, but Ted and I had set up a semester of physics followed by a semester of chemistry, I guess the common ground being atomic structure which physics gave the foundation for. In the years when the New Curriculum was running, we had the Science 1-2 course which was all freshman year-- physics and math. Then the next course was chemistry-biology. I think I fell short in that. I had never had a formal course in biology, so I made some use of what the sophomores had learned in Science 1-2, especially as related to atomic structure, and tried to introduce some topics which would be helpful in relation to biology, getting some advice from George Kidder and others as to what might be done. I felt rather inadequate in that role of straddling physics and biology, but I thought that one contribution at least was a willingness to try, and to be inconvenienced in a way by it. 

HWH: As you know, the faculty is again facing this challenge in structuring the Introduction to Liberal Studies courses. And quite naturally some of them are very strongly for it, and some very strongly against. But I recall the 1947 curriculum that Science 1-2, that is, physics and math and I think some astronomy, sort of floundered for the first couple of years until Arnold Arons came along. 

BEEBE: I don’t even remember who gave it. Did Ted start them in with it? 

HWH: No, Warren Green was chairman as it began. And I don’t think Warren’s heart was really in it. But Arnold came along with a very different background and attitude, and I think he’s probably responsible for its success. 

BEEBE: Oh yes! I’d forgotten about that period before. 

HWH: Then you recall, too, another course in sophomore year was “The Evolution of Earth and Man.”

BEEBE: Loomis’s course. 

HWH: Which the geologists were really in charge of, though I think they worked also with biologists. And possibly geography. But that never achieved the success, as I observed it, as Science 1-2 or the chemistry-biology combination. 

BEEBE: Well, I feel that Science 1-2 really carried the interest there. The students were plunged into that, and then they were sort of committed to the chemistry-biology. I think the math-physics combination was a much more innovative and imaginative course than the chemistry-biology sequence. I think we were doing the best we could. I’m not ashamed of it. I did the best I could with the background I had-- but Arnold Arons happened to have just what it took to do that thing at that time. 

HWH: Well, he was a very articulate man, too, and a great spokesman for the liberal arts. 

BEEBE: Yes. Now, I think that Arnold was not without blame in that part of his success depended upon being convinced that what he was doing was right and he could do it, and it did border on arrogance at times. 

HWH: Yes it did.

HWH: Well, another program, Ralph: you’ve certainly seen cooperation grow, first among the four institutions, now among five. Has this had any effect, do you think, on the educational program at Amherst? That is, the extension of opportunity here to students from other institutions? 

BEEBE: Well I haven’t seen enough of that. I don’t know just when that began, but it was toward the end of my teaching career. I was a member of a four-college committee for two or three years. I think George Kidder was later on, and probably Bob Whitney. Of course. He was four-college and then five-college coordinator. First of all, at that time when I was aware of it, in chemistry (and I’m being provincial now in talking about chemistry) we saw no need for our students to go to Smith, Mount Holyoke, or the University to get their undergraduate chemistry. I don’t think the issue ever came up, but we weren’t about to go out and say, “Look. Don’t you think you’d get a little better course at Smith, in this or that?” I think this varied a little with different fields. Astronomy was an example where you had relatively few students and you could get a better program in astronomy with perhaps even one astronomer from each place contributing. I never knew of a student from any one of the other colleges coming to Amherst to take chemistry, or anybody that we had that went out. This is being a little departmental, but in my own experience I saw very little of it. But there must have been areas, and you would know better than I of the areas, where you would do very well to go and get a certain course under a certain professor elsewhere. 

HWH: Then you began teaching at Amherst, I think you were the third member of the department, as we said earlier, which was Messrs. Doughty, Hopkins, and then you succeeding Zinn. There are now, I believe, nine full-time members of the Chemistry Department. I’m sure this reflects both the expansion of the areas of study in chemistry as well as the number of students. 

BEEBE: I’m amazed that it’s as many as nine. 

HWH: I made a count; I may be one off. My point in raising the question, Ralph, is that if the department has grown to eight or nine or whatever at Amherst, it certainly reflects both increase in the size of the institution as well as, I would think, increase or expansion of the areas in which chemistry is studied: that you need a specialist or at least someone familiar with that area. 

BEEBE: If I had to guess about that, I’d say that the pre-medical situation may be responsible. There are certainly fewer graduates in pure chemistry who go into graduate work in pure chemistry than there were back in the ‘fifties. And this is natural, I think, because if you talk about chemistry per se, it’s a little smug to say that it’s beginning to be all buttoned up, that it has been pretty thoroughly investigated, that is, chemistry for its own sake. Then if you start looking at chemistry as inter-related with other sciences, then it includes not only biology but geology. I think they’ve now recognized the need of a geo-chemist. One subject fundamental to chemistry and chemical theory is thermo-dynamics and they’re deep into that in the study of geological formations-- especially high-temperature high-pressure underground-- the kind of things that cause volcanoes and the formation of igneous rocks. So I think that it would be hard for me to say just how it is that that many chemists are needed now, because if you measure chemistry in terms of production of chemists, fewer chemists are being turned out now than were fifteen or twenty years ago. But that certainly isn’t because the teaching was better then than now; it’s just because of the change in opportunities and other things. 

HWH: Well you can say the same thing for ministers. 

(Short intermission) 

HWH: Has Amherst had strong connections with particular graduate schools or people in them? 

BEEBE: Well, especially in Hugh Taylor who I thought was tops. One was John Bates, Class of ‘24, John Reginald Bates, who took his Ph.D. at Princeton, became an industrial chemist at the period when that sort of thing was growing. But certainly we had respect for Harvard, and for some reason very few went to Yale. I don’t know why. 

HWH: I went to Yale in history and I was the only Amherst man down there for ages. (Brief pause.) 

Let me just turn this on again and I wish you would comment on the Science Club. 

BEEBE: Well, it seems to me that that impinged on Amherst in two important ways. One was that the Science Club included all the scientists who wanted to belong to it from Amherst College and Massachusetts State College, later the University. So it did two things: it went outside of Amherst College for part of its membership and it was inter-departmental in that it was ANY science. The leading light in the Science Club was Freddy Loomis. When I came here as an instructor in 1923, the Science Club usually met once a month or once in two weeks-- it seems to me we had more than monthly meetings. 

HWH: Was it well attended? 

BEEBE: Well, altogether I think the membership was somewhere in the thirties. It was scientists from Amherst College and Massachusetts State College and any other scientists in town. It was the Amherst Science Club. There were very few of that sort, but there was the odd man here or there who wasn’t associated with either college. One member was associated with that place in Northampton on Route 5 where they make periscopes for submarines. 

HWH: Oh yes, Kolmorgen. 

BEEBE: Yes, I think one of their men used to come. But it was essentially from the staffs of the two colleges and the speakers were usually from one or the other of the colleges. They also would bring in a few people from out of town, but I would think no more than one in three in the course of a year; say one third from out of town, two thirds locally.

HWH: Did each institution alternate as host? 

BEEBE: No, it was always in one room. Do you know where the library is in the Biology Building now? You know, where George Kidder’s area is, upstairs from there, that square room was IT. 

HWH: You said that Freddy Loomis initiated this, and of course that’s where his quarters were. 

BEEBE: Yes that’s right, he initiated it, and it went on for quite a few years. Laurence Packard came to a few meetings-- he wasn’t a member but he could have been if he’d wanted to be-- but members of the two faculties were free to come. 

HWH: Could students come? 

BEEBE: No. It was very autocratic about that. And there was a kind of-- you know, the spirit around the pool table in the Tom Esty, Biggy era, you must have seen that-- that KIND of give and take. I remember that it had gone on for quite a few years. It had no president but it had a secretary-treasurer and Freddy Loomis was the secretary-treasurer. There was supposed to be an Annual Meeting, and he once made a slip and said, “We now will come to re-election of officers.” It took a long time for him to live that one down. You can see Tom Esty gloating over that. And I can remember another situation where Professor Benjamin K. Emerson was up in the front row with his cane. Hoppy was giving a talk and Hoppy seemed quite venerable to me at the time. Well, Emmy was deaf and Hoppy had gone on for a little while, when Emmy pounded on the floor and shouted, “Louder, young man, louder!” 

Final Transcript made December 1978]

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Oral history interview with Ralph A. Beebe, 1978 January 4, in Amherst College Oral History Project Records, (Box 1, Folder 3), Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library <https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/amherst-college-oral-history-project/ralph-beebe>

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Related Materials

General Files (Department Files, Chemistry Department). Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.