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Chemistry Is Foundation's Formula for Success

It maintains a variety of collections; sponsors awards and traveling exhibitions; publishes books and hosts researchers.

March 14, 2004|Bill Bergstrom | Associated Press Writer

PHILADELPHIA — Tourists roaming around Independence Hall and Benjamin Franklin's former home seldom stop to tour the historic First Bank building around the corner.

But the head of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which now occupies the building, says that if Franklin were to return, that is where he could catch up on the biggest changes in the intervening 200 years.

"If Benjamin Franklin came back today, he would not tell you, 'I am astonished by the Constitution of the United States,' "said Arnold Thackray, the foundation's president. "He would not tell you, 'I am astonished by politicians, Bill Clinton, or the war in Iraq, or crime in the streets.'

"He would be astonished by the transformation of material life, and the intellectual understanding of the universe and how we fit into the scheme of things," Thackray said. "Those changes are really the only significant thing that's happened in the history of the last 200 years. Not using a quill pen, that's chemistry. Plastic glasses, that's chemistry. This is the great cumulative story of mankind."

To preserve that story, the University of Pennsylvania, American Chemical Society and American Institute of Chemical Engineers started the Center for the History of Chemistry in 1982. The center grew, gaining backing of 29 affiliates, from the Alpha Chi Sigma professional chemistry fraternity to the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Society.

In 1995, the group, renamed the Chemical Heritage Foundation, bought the historic bank building in Independence National Historical Park. There, it houses books, paintings and artifacts tracing progress from the days of alchemy to the development of nylon and mapping of the human genome.

It has built an endowment that Thackray would only say is significant, and has an operating budget of more than $7 million a year spent mostly to maintain collections and for outreach efforts such as sponsoring awards and traveling exhibitions.

The group publishes books, such as "Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew," a biography of a chemist whose life Thackray said illustrated "the human condition that every advance in understanding can be used to do good or evil."

As a contemporary in Berlin of physicists Max Planck and Albert Einstein, Haber led the 1909 development of the synthesis of ammonia that made possible mass production of fertilizers that helped feed millions. He later led in the development of gas warfare and was present at the first gas attack on April 22, 1915, at Ypres, Belgium, which killed an estimated 350 people and sickened about 7,000.

"The responsibility for chemical warfare rested on his shoulders and despite the passage of years, it has never been lifted," Haber's son, Lutz, said in a foreword to the book, citing "the ethical and personal problems of a chemist in war and peace."

The foundation has a growing collection of historic and rare books, including such treasures as "The Doctrine of Phlogiston" by Joseph Priestly, published in 1796, and "De Re Metallica" by Georgii Agricola, printed in 1561. An additional donation, of 6,000 volumes from a private collector, is expected to be announced in April, Thackray said.

The typical tourist seldom visits, foundation spokesman Neil Gussman said, although employees will show individual walk-ins around and groups can call ahead to arrange a tour.

But the library and historic works of alchemy art, from a 1938 N. C. Wyeth illustration, "The Alchemist," back to 17th century Dutch and Italian paintings, draw a stream of researchers.

A current scholar in residence, Donna Rilling, an associate professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is studying historic urban waste disposal, including the processing of tons of horse manure into fertilizer to sell to Philadelphia area farms in the 18th century.

The growing trove of artifacts inspired chemical engineer Joe Labovsky, 93, of nearby Wilmington, Del., to donate memorabilia from his own work on the invention of nylon in 1935.

He recalled the push to gear up production in World War II for everything from tires able to withstand landings of heavy bombers to mildew and rot-resistant bootlaces for jungle combat.

But another exhibit recalls the biggest market for the material that launched a synthetic fiber industry, a scrap of whitish material that, although not sheer by today's standards, would largely replace silk stockings.

"Silk stockings were expensive. Only the rich women could afford it," Labovsky said. Nylon was not only cheaper, he said, but "almost indestructible. Nylon hose would last 10 times longer than silk."

Labovsky said he gladly gave some items and eventually will donate everything in his basement museum to the foundation's impressive collection.

It serves a worthy goal, he said: "to inspire young men and women to go into research, because what has been discovered is just the tip of the iceberg."

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