Chemistry Department

Why I Studied Chemistry

How would you answer these questions? TRUE or FALSE?

  • Chemical technology (broadly defined as research + manufacture) has, over the last century, dramatically changed the lives of average Americans for the better?
  • Chemical technology will play an important, perhaps central role in raising living standards throughout the world during the next century?

The following letter speaks to both of these questions. It was written by William Garwood, a retired chemist, and was published in the August 4, 2003 issue of C&E News (volume 81, issue 31), the weekly journal of the American Chemical Society. The letter is reprinted here with the author's permission.

"Why I studied chemistry" by William Garwood (as published in C&ENews, August 4, 2003)

C&EN Ed: The following letter contains a suggestion from a longtime (61-year) C&EN reader.

I always find your editor's page stimulating, giving me an urge to respond that I can usually control. However, I am sure many of us share the urge to compliment you on your column, "Messy Tapestries," in the June 2 issue (C&EN, page 5).

Your statement that "the U.S. ... needs to use and develop its homegrown talent" is so true. Toward this end, I think present-day chemists, both active and retired, can help by communicating to our young people why they decided to major in chemistry.

By coincidence, I recently jotted down my thoughts on this, which follow.

The year is 1937. I have finished high school and am anticipating going to college.

One is fortunate if he or she knows as a freshman what he or she wants to major in. My heritage was dairy farming, but our family doctor told me to think otherwise due to some health problems. It happened that I was raised near a town where a number of DuPont chemists lived, several of whom were raised on Midwest farms and were active in the church I attended. They seemed happy in their work, which was not always true of many even back in those days.

So those were important personal factors in my decision to study chemistry, along with the following challenges from that period of time, 66 years ago. Also important to me was having a good high school chemistry teacher.

ENERGY. Back in my youth, farming was continuous hard physical work for both man and beast. On a dairy farm, it started at about 5:30 AM milking cows. During daylight hours, it included field work all year, though less in winter, using horses most every day along with the human labor. Then, milking again at about 5 or 6 PM and maybe a few chores after supper.

As a youth, I observed our faithful horses pulling plows and loaded wagons even with raw sores on their shoulders. I also observed and experienced the exhaustion from the constant daily hard physical work and the lack of time and energy to enjoy cultural activities.

Cheap and available energy sources held the promise of a better life. Petroleum-powered tractors, trucks, and other devices could replace much manual labor and create shorter workhours. High school chemistry books touched on the conversion of petroleum to the whole range of hydrocarbon products. Finding new and improved methods of doing this was one thing chemists could do. So there was an idealism in this work not lost on youths of my age and background.

FOOD. Almost all the food produced in my growing-up days of the 1920s and '30s came from family-sized farms. I observed the uncertainty of raising crops, a big problem being the infestation of insects.

My father contracted with Campbell Soup for tomatoes every year, raising 4 to 8 acres. There were always some potato bugs, a relatively minor problem. Then one year, tomato worms showed up en masse, just before we were to start picking. In three days, they ate all the leaves--and even part of the tomatoes and stems--leaving nothing but sticks! I counted 70 worms on one hill. We cut-harrowed the whole field without picking a single tomato.

The first year the Japanese beetles showed up, they swarmed all over the fields, a favorite target being the silk on the newly formed ears in the cornfield. The yield of corn that year was cut to a fraction of what was needed to feed our livestock and chickens.

I remember another year when a horde of army caterpillars moved across the area, denuding wheat fields. They got as far as our neighbor's farm. He stopped them by plowing a deep trench in their path, into which they dropped and perished.

Such infestations cause famines, described for centuries going back to biblical times. How to cope with the insects?

At the time, chemistry seemed to hold a viable solution, creating effective insecticides that could be sprayed on the bugs, thus saving crops--a worthy and idealistic goal to prevent worldwide famines, and another incentive for studying chemistry.

HEALTH. As a youth, I also observed some my age not surviving "childhood" diseases and people getting infections for which there was no treatment. I remember our family doctor making his house call and giving my sister and me sugar pills. She almost died one summer.

My father subscribed to Collier's magazine, in which I remember reading several articles by Paul de Kruif on "wonder drugs" synthesized by German chemists. How exciting! The word "sulfanilamide" did not mean anything to me at the time, but how it could save lives was very real.

This was a major factor in my decision to study chemistry, along with energy and food needs. Today, at age 83, I have no regrets at having studied chemistry. The old challenges still exist to some extent in today's world, along with new ones.

IF I WERE 17 TODAY. What if I were 17 today, having grown up in the plush days of the 1990s?

I may or may not have known chemists as role models. I certainly would not have seen the physical hardships of man and beast, even if I had been raised on today's modern farm, with all its mechanization. I would no doubt take for granted plentiful energy and food, and health problems, though ongoing, are now less severe, as evidenced by people living longer.

However, I think the fascination of chemistry would still have attracted me--the making and breaking of chemical bonds in the molecules of living things and also in the frontiers of space, both ongoing long-range challenges. I see idealism for the human condition in this, which I think would have attracted me and hopefully can attract enough of today's youth to keep the profession alive and healthy!

William E. Garwood
Haddonfield, N.J.