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A Foundation for Chemistry in Texas

The Welch Foundation has fostered chemical research in Texas for half a century

November 22, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 47

Angelo State University undergrads Chris Hobbs (left) and Kristen Truett work with an electroanalytical system purchased with the chemistry department's grant from the Welch Foundation.
Angelo State University undergrads Chris Hobbs (left) and Kristen Truett work with an electroanalytical system purchased with the chemistry department's grant from the Welch Foundation.

Robert Alonzo Welch is a case in point that you don't need to be a chemist to appreciate the importance of chemistry. A self-made businessman who didn't even finish elementary school, Welch so valued the impact chemistry had made on his life that he left most of his millions to support chemical research after his death. His legacy, the Welch Foundation, now 50 years old, has transformed chemical research in Texas, the state Welch adopted as his home.

"I have long been impressed with the great possibilities for the betterment of mankind that lay in the field of research in the domain of chemistry," Welch wrote in his will. His education in the subject was self-driven and on the job: To better understand the technical challenges of the businesses he was in--oil and sulfur extraction--Welch struck up friendships with chemists, geologists, and other scientists. When it came to deciding what to do with his fortune after he died, Welch earmarked the majority of it to support chemical research because it had the potential to "lift the boat" for all mankind. The Welch Foundation was founded in 1954, two years after Welch's death, with some $25 million of his fortune. Since then, it has doled out more than $520 million in grants, scholarships, university chairs, special projects, and awards.

The foundation is perhaps best known for the prestigious Welch Award in Chemistry, an international award that recognizes an academic chemist's lifetime of achievement in chemical research. Given each year since 1972, the award comes with a cash prize of $300,000.

As Welch himself had requested, most of the foundation's money stays in Texas, where it has helped foster a vibrant chemical research community. "At the time the Welch Foundation started, chemistry departments in Texas--and the overall education at universities in the state--were mediocre at best," says Allen J. Bard, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and the 2004 Welch Award winner. "Today, Texas has a respectable and competitive research establishment" in chemistry as well as related sciences, Bard points out, and "the Welch Foundation was an important factor."

The backbone of the Welch Foundation's efforts is its research grants program. Inspired by Welch's wish to "fund people, not bricks and mortar," the philanthropy began distributing no-strings-attached research funds to Texas chemists in 1955. To date, the Welch Foundation has handed out nearly 1,600 of these peer-reviewed, highly competitive grants to investigators at more than 30 schools in Texas.

Henry J. Shine, emeritus professor of chemistry at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, says that in the foundation's early days, the grants helped young investigators like him get started. "My Welch Foundation grant helped me buy my first instrument," he says, and helped him build a research program that was established enough to attract funding from national science-funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation. But equally important, Shine notes, is the foundation's commitment to supporting successful and creative researchers over the course of their careers. Next year will be Shine's 50th year of continuous support from the Welch Foundation.

THE WELCH FOUNDATION does not restrict such grants--which deliver a minimum of $150,000 over three years--to faculty in chemistry departments. In fact, faculty members from biochemistry, physics, and materials science departments have attracted foundation funding. Steven L. McKnight, professor and chair of the biochemistry department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, says the availability of Welch Foundation funding has "helped us build substantial synthetic organic chemistry capabilities." Thanks in part to the availability of Welch Foundation money, his department has recruited no fewer than five hard-core synthetic organic chemists.

"Welch himself had a definition of chemistry that came out of the Webster's dictionary of the time," says Norbert Dittrich, the foundation's president. But since then, "our definition has changed because the field has changed." He notes that the foundation now supports not only traditional chemical research but also work being done at the interface of chemistry with biology, physics, and materials science.

The Welch Foundation is also deeply committed to enriching chemical education in the state. It underwrites more than 40 chaired professorships at Texas universities aimed at recruiting and retaining renowned names in the chemical sciences. The grants it provides to more than 40 chemistry departments at small and medium-sized colleges and universities in the state fund laboratory equipment, supplies, and scholarships for students doing undergraduate research. "These grants are intended to encourage students to do undergraduate research and to inspire them to go to graduate school," Dittrich says.

George E. Shankle--professor and chair of the chemistry department at Angelo State University, a regional state-funded school in central Texas--says that nearly a decade of continuous Welch Foundation funding has made "a big difference" in his department. They've used their departmental grant to fund research scholarships, to buy instruments "that otherwise would be hard to come by around here," and to send students to meetings to present their work.

At Southwestern University, a small, private liberal arts school outside Austin, two decades of departmental funding from the Welch Foundation have helped entrench undergraduate research in chemistry. Associate professor of chemistry and department chair Kerry A. Bruns calls the Welch Foundation grant, which has funded research scholarships for undergraduates in chemistry, "the backbone of our program." In the past three years, he points out, four Southwestern seniors have won prestigious NSF graduate fellowships. "The Welch Foundation has helped us prepare these students," Bruns says.

The Welch Foundation is also committed to encouraging students to pursue careers in chemistry and related sciences. To this end, it funded an initiative that gives Texas high school students the opportunity to spend the summer working with faculty researchers in their laboratories at Texas university campuses. The foundation also hosts an annual two-day conference in Houston that brings high-profile chemists to the state of Texas.

"The Welch Foundation has been a catalyst," says Bobby L. Wilson, provost and former chemistry department chair at Texas Southern University, Houston. It stimulates "research activity in Texas, and it forces the state and even the federal government to take a closer look at Texas and realize that people here are serious about research. I do not think there is any way Texas would have the kind of influence on chemical research that we do now without Welch."

The Welch Foundation has fostered chemical research in Texas for half a century
The Man Behind The Legacy


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