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100th Anniversary Snapshots

(These snapshots of important events and individuals help tell the story of chemical engineering at the University of Rochester during the last 100 years. They draw upon John Friedly's informative 75 Years of Chemical Engineering: 1915-1990, material from Rare Books and Special Collections at Rush Rhees Library made available with the help of University Archivist Melissa Mead, and from the department's own files.)


(UR's first chemical engineering students studied in the Reynolds Chemistry Lab on the Prince Street campus.)

When the University of Rochester launched its chemical engineering program in 1915, tuition was $90 a year, and the curriculum looked nothing like it does today.

Freshmen took rhetoric, German or French (used by the most prestigious scientific journals at that time), math, chemistry, drawing, woodshop, foundry, forge and physical training during an academic year that was split into three terms.

trio The first class of 10 students was taught by two faculty members, Millard C. Ernsberger, a mechanical engineer and head of applied science, and Victor Chambers, chair of chemistry.

President Rush Rhees articulated the goals of the University’s fledgling engineering program as follows:  “Graduates from this group would thus be prepared to enter on commercial careers with all the advantage offered for such careers by technical training, coupled with the distinct advantage arising from a more general liberal culture.”

ChemE’s first graduate was Otto Wiele Cook, who received his bachelor’s degree in 1920 and later managed cine processing at Eastman Kodak Co. By 1921-22 enrollment had increased to 21 students, and by 1930-31 to 37.

The Move to River Campus

(This is a view of the engineering lab circa 1915 when the University was still at the Prince Street campus. Compare to photo of ChemE's recently renovated undergraduate lab in photo at bottom.)

ChemE’s first home was in the Carnegie Laboratory on the Prince Street campus near downtown Rochester.

“The two-story building of rather austere design had a large open laboratory space in the basement and classrooms and drafting rooms on the upper levels,” writes John C. Friedly, former chair of the department, in his book commemorating ChemE’s 75th anniversary. “The laboratory was equipped with large steam engines and electrical apparatus for the training of up-to-date engineers.”

moveWhen the University moved its men’s classes to the River Campus in 1930, ChemE moved into a new three-floor Engineering Building (now called Gavett Hall), along with mechanical engineering.

ChemE’s current home has undergone substantial renovations since then.

During the 1960s, for example, the University spent more than $800,000 to add 15,000 square feet to Gavett Hall and renovate much of its existing space, and another $1.5 million to build Hopeman Hall next door. This was in support of the new College of Engineering (established in 1958). ChemE continued to share space in Gavett with the Institute of Optics (which had been absorbed into the new college in 1961) and with MechE (which moved most of its program to Hopeman alongside the new department of Electrical Engineering). Even so, ChemE increased its square footage from 14,514 to 20,760 square feet.

Among the bills for this project, saved in the University’s Rare Books and Special Collections, is one for 11 lab tables (either 60x or 72x24x36 high) and 5 balance tables with glass or stone tops – all for a total of $2,331 delivered and installed!

Recently, ChemE has completely refurbished its undergraduate teaching labs, as shown in photo below, with new equipment and mobile benches to maximize lab usage.

new lab

A crisis of accreditation


It was “ante up or fold” for chemical engineering at the University of Rochester in 1936.

The program had failed to receive accreditation for several reasons. None of the faculty were trained in chemical engineering. There were no unit processes labs. The curriculum stressed too much chemistry and mechanical engineering, and not enough chemical engineering.

valentineThough University President Alan Valentine initially favored abandoning the program, he sought additional advice, writes John Friedly, former department chair, in his 75th anniversary book about ChemE.

Professor Joseph Gavett, chair of engineering, was determined to keep the program.

During a key meeting with trustees in May 1937, the University decided to “ante up,” agreeing to spend $15,000 over three years for a unit processes lab, and $4,500 to $5,000 yearly for a new faculty member.

In addition, an industrial advisory committee was created for chemical engineering, headed by James Gleason of Gleason Works.

Gardner Brings 'Instant Credibility'

(Students operate the new double effect evaporator in 1941, with Howard Gardner down below.)

“So quietly that few students and even fewer faculty were aware of it, the University of Rochester today began an expanded program in chemical engineering, and set about developing a chemical engineering laboratory in which the ‘unit processes’ of fluid flow, evaporation, crushing and grinding, absorption, and the like can be experimentally studied,” a University news release announced in September 1938.

“There isn’t much to talk about yet,” Howard Gardner hastened to add. “We had rather wait until the work is well under way and we can talk about results, not hopes.”

gardnerGardner, hired as the University’s first bona fide chemical engineering faculty member earlier that year, brought the program “instant credibility,” John Friedly writes in his 75th anniversary book about ChemE.

Recipient of a master’s degree from MIT, Gardner (who later received a doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT) previously worked for six years as a chemical engineer at Eastman Kodak Co. and served as a chemistry instructor in UR’s extension division.

Gardner supervised the first MS thesis in chemical engineering at UR by Ralph E. Pike in 1939. Gardner also laid the groundwork for the program’s successful accreditation two years later, by preparing an elaborate report detailing all the improvements that had been made and even accounting for more than 100 graduates up to that time. Most were still chemical engineers.

When chemical engineering became a separate department in 1947, Gardner was named the first chair, but resigned a month later to become director of research and development at Fibreboard Products in California.

Gene Su's Legacy

su and nick

Professor Gene Su, foreground, with one of his PhD students, Nicholas Borrelli '63. Borelli, now a corporate research fellow with the S&T Division of Corning Inc., recently contacted the Department of Engineering to help honor the memory of Gene Su. "He was easily the finest gentleman I have ever met . . . and the word 'gentleman' could not be more appropriate," Borelli wrote. "My career such as it is owes much to my association with Prof. Su and the guidance he gave me over the years."

During World War II, Gene Su taught at a university in his native China, then established a gasohol factory there to fuel US Army supply trucks on the Burma Road.

While immersed in his studies one day, Su later told a Rochester newspaper columnist, air raid sirens went off. Su ignored them. Only when an American officer insisted, did Su reluctantly leave the building.

Moments later it was demolished by a Japanese bomb.

That unidentified officer unknowingly performed a huge service on behalf of the University of Rochester and its Department of Chemical Engineering.

suFor 15 years after joining the department in 1947, Su was one of only three chemical engineering faculty members, and “carried the lion’s share of the research load,” wrote John Friedly in his 75th anniversary book about ChemE.

During 1960-65, for example, Su was recipient of five grants totaling $285,000 (about $2.2 million in today’s dollars) from the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation and the Glass Container Industry Research Group.

The largest of these -- an NSF grant for $92,000 to study the “infrared and ultraviolet transmission and absorption characteristics of glass” --was cited by then UR president Cornelis W. de Kiewiet. “We have great confidence in our new College of Engineering,” de Kiewiet wrote, “and this National Science Foundation grant will help immeasurably in strengthening the research graduate training efforts of the Department of Chemical Engineering within the College.”

Su had supervised more master’s theses (33) and PhD theses (15) than anyone in the department’s history when he retired.

An expert in the thermodynamics of fluids, he also took an “early interest in the properties of glassy materials,” which “anticipated by more than a quarter of a century the chemical engineering community’s current interest in optics materials,” Friedly added.

Su left another legacy as well during his 27 years at the UR. He was “the most courteous man ever to pass through this institution,” according to John Ferron, a fellow ChemE faculty member.

“Gene Su’s quiet manner belied the influence he had at the University of Rochester,” Friedly added.

Coming of Age

ChemE faculty members in 1962: from left to right, Stanley Middleman, John Bartlett, Richard Kraybill, Shelby Miller, Richard Eisenberg, and Gene Su. Two men helped the Department of Chemical Engineering come of age after World War II.

Geoffrey Broughton, a native of England and an MIT PhD graduate, had worked as a chemical engineer for Eastman Kodak Co., served in London with the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, and chaired the paper engineering department at the Lowell Textile Institute before becoming chair of ChemE in 1952.

His tenure was tragically brief – he died in 1954 at the age of 42. But within a month of his arrival he proposed a PhD program, and a year later the first three students were admitted. Broughton also laid the groundwork for a strong research program, and for expansion of staff and program. And he initiated extension courses in chemical engineering to benefit employees of local industries.

millerWhat Broughton began, Shelby Miller (seen at left) brought to fruition as head of the department from 1955 to 1967.

Miller came here from the University of Kansas, where he was a professor and department chair; he also had industrial experience at Du Pont after receiving his PhD at Minnesota in 1940.

During Miller’s tenure, faculty size increased from 3 to 12, and he played a key leadership role as the department increased its emphasis on graduate education and research, while maintaining its emphasis on undergraduate teaching.

A department self-assessment in 1967 noted: "In all this the key concept is engineering -- not science, essential ingredient that it is -- nor engineering science, inseparable organ of engineering that it is -- nor economics, code of law to the engineering industry that it is -- but engineering, the composite of all these and other components."

The Energy Crisis

The oil crisis of 1979, triggered by the Iranian Revolution, caused long lines to form at American gasoline pumps, just as they had six years earlier.

freidlyAt the same time, enrollment in chemical engineering at the UR – and nationwide -- was approaching an all-time high, fueled in part by the “frantic hiring practices by companies in the energy field,” John Friedly writes in his 75th anniversary book about ChemE.

“Several recruiters from the major companies came to the department with check in hand, hoping to gain an advantage. It was relatively easy for undergraduates to obtain multiple job offers, and select the best opportunity.”

When Friedly took over as chair in 1981, enrollment was at an all-time high in UR chemical engineering. Overworked faculty struggled to keep up with classes so large that close interaction with students could not be maintained.

This did not last long. “One of Ronald Reagan’s first acts in the White House was to cancel the synthetic fuels program,” Friedly wrote. “Oil companies that had been using excess profits from rapidly inflating oil prices, coupled with federal funding for synthetic fuels, to sop up all engineers in sight immediately saw the danger signal. Hiring was abruptly halted.”

The number of chemical engineering degrees awarded at UR dropped from 57 in 1983 to 20 in 1986, then stabilized.

The department concentrated primarily on the graduate program in the latter half of the 1980s, Friedly wrote. By September 1987 the full-time graduate student population had risen to 54, believed to be the largest it had ever been.

“We better beat the bushes”

Eldred Chimowitz remembers all too well the predicament that confronted the Department of Chemical Engineering as the 2003 fall semester drew near.

Only four incoming freshmen were enrolled.

“We better beat the bushes,” suggested Sandra Willison, the department’s undergraduate coordinator (now department administrator).

Eight years earlier -- at a time many other universities faced financial difficulties and budget deficits -- UR President Thomas Jackson announced his 1995 Renaissance Plan to create a leaner, refocused College. This included suspending the PhD program in ChemE and three other departments.

Though current PhD students were allowed to finish, incoming students were turned away. “We had to find them other schools,” Chimowitz said.

four faculty The core ChemE faculty shrank from 12 to four. Chimowitz, Jacob Jorne, Shaw Chen and David Wu remained  -- and are still with the department today, mentoring a wave of new faculty who were subsequently hired after the suspension was lifted.

But it took time for the department to fully recover.

To bolster numbers of incoming freshmen in 2003, the department sent messages to other incoming students in related disciplines urging them to consider chemical engineering, Chimowitz recalled, and managed to build up the incoming freshman class to 12. Willison said the department also began visiting local high schools to recruit students.

By contrast, 63 incoming freshmen expressed an interest in ChemE this past September, part of an overall enrollment surge in engineering that has seen the Hajim School double its undergraduate enrollment the last five years.

Are there growing pains? Sure. But Chimowitz said he’d rather deal with those than have an incoming class of only four students.

‘It was a rough few years, but in the end we emerged stronger.”

The department rebuilds

ching tangIt is a matter of considerable pride in the Department of Chemical Engineering that its PhD program is now nationally ranked # 13 in the country according to the most recent National Academy Rankings,  rebounding from a suspension of new doctoral student enrollments in 1995.

Why was ChemE’s PhD program reinstated?

Kevin Parker, who served as dean of the engineering school from 1998 to 2008, cited two factors: 1. Participation of PhD students was required for  the research grants ChemE faculty were receiving. 2. A renewed PhD program in ChemE would also benefit the University’s Materials Science and biomedical engineering programs.

“Eventually that argument was received,” Parker said.

 Eldred Chimowitz, former department chair -- and one of four core ChemE faculty who remained through the downsizing in 1995 – said these factors helped the department rebuild its PhD program and faculty:

  1. Good leadership, starting with Shaw Chen as department chair when the effort began.
  2. Vision. The department concentrated on key research areas in hiring new faculty, such as organic and inorganic photovoltaics; hydrogen and methanol fuel cells; hydrogen and ethanol biofuels; nuclear fusion energy; and medical diagnostics and treatments.
  3. High standards. The department became much more stringent about requiring a chemical engineering background for most new hires. Wolf Prize recipient Ching Tang, co-inventor of OLEDs shown above left, brought the department additional credibility.
  4. New faculty with industrial experience, such as David Foster and Doug Kelley, “has been absolutely key, especially in the labs,” Chimowitz added. “The students love it, and it’s just transformed the whole program.”
  5. A department commitment to mentor new faculty and give them the resources they need.

 “I think today the department is in the best position it’s been in all the 32 years I’ve been here,”  said Chimowitz.

ugs ChemE's undergraduate enrollment has increased from 98 in fall 2007 to 225 in fall 2014.