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Whatever Happened In 1908?

by Rudy Baum,
May 5, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 18

Sometime in 2007, Donald R. Paul, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and editor of the ACS journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, pointed out to me that the ACS Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Division would celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2008.

Later in the year, I learned that the Organic, Physical, and Agricultural & Food Chemistry Divisions were celebrating 100th anniversaries in 2008, as well. I also knew that the American Institute of Chemical Engineers was celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2008. ACS lore has it that AIChE formed by splitting from ACS.

I made a mental note to myself that I really needed to look up what was going on in 1908 that led to all of this activity. Anniversaries are nice to celebrate, but there was clearly some turmoil in the chemistry enterprise in that seminal year.

Just after returning from the national meeting in New Orleans—where ACS and AIChE colocated their national meetings for the first time in their histories—I decided to pursue that question. I wandered around on the Web for a bit and found a couple of fascinating articles in old issues of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Then I did what I should have done initially and visited the ACS library—yes, we still have one, thankfully, albeit smaller than it used to be—and asked Moria Smith, the ACS librarian, for assistance. She pointed me to "A History of the American Chemical Society: Seventy-Five Eventful Years" by Charles A. Browne, historian of ACS, and Mary Elvira Weeks, a research associate in scientific literature at Wayne University, published by ACS in 1952.

So what was special about 1908? It turns out that there was a lot of ferment in the chemistry enterprise in the first decade of the 20th century, and it was reflected in the activities and structure of ACS. What I find interesting are the parallels between then and now.

One factor influencing events in 1908 was tension between ACS members who were industrial chemists and those working in academe and government labs. The latter generally had access to abstracts of the chemical literature published by European chemical societies, whereas the former did not. It was, in fact, this situation that led to the creation of Chemical Abstracts in 1907, the society's second journal, even though this necessitated a dues increase from $5.00 to $8.00 per year!

Industry members also complained that they were not adequately represented in society governance bodies and that their papers were not regularly published in JACS. To the former complaint, William F. Hillebrand, ACS president in 1906, responded in his presidential address, "It would seem that the remedy for this alleged lack of due representation in the Council lies largely in the hands of the complainants" (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1907, 29, 1). Industrial chemists outnumbered academic chemists and government chemists in the membership of ACS, and Hillebrand suggested that they organize themselves and get elected to governance positions.

As to the latter complaint, ACS responded with the creation of its third journal, the Journal of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry, in 1908, a publication that would subsequently give rise to Analytical Chemistry and C&EN. Some members were opposed to the creation of this new journal because it would, they said, begin to dilute the content of JACS.

Specialization in subdisciplines of chemistry was also much on ACS members' minds in these years. Some members felt strongly that subdivisions of some sort should be created in the society to provide a venue for chemists from these areas to meet separate from the society as a whole. It was noted that chemists were going off and forming their own specialized organizations in areas like electrochemistry, biological chemistry, and agricultural chemistry.

As early as 1903, ACS established a committee of five distinguished members to look into this issue, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Arthur A. Noyes as the chairman. (Throughout its history, ACS has responded to challenges by creating committees!) The committee reported to the ACS Council at its June 1, 1903, meeting, and strongly recommended that "Divisions of the Society be established representing different important branches of chemistry."

Many prominent members of ACS were not convinced. Browne and Weeks quote Ira Remsen, founder of the chemistry department at Johns Hopkins University, ACS president in 1902, and the recipient of the first Priestley Medal in 1923, as saying: "I feel it will break up the Society into too many small subdivisions. ... The logical result of any such movement would be to have only those meet together who are working on the same subject, and all of the advantages that are supposed to come from the large gatherings would thus be lost."

Edgar F. Smith, chairman of the chemistry department and provost at the University of Pennsylvania, who had been ACS president in 1895 and would be again in 1921 and 1922, was blunter: "I've read most carefully the report you sent me. I've thought seriously upon it and unless I can have more light I shall not be able to favor one single recommendation." The council asked the committee to refine its recommendations, but there is no record of them doing so. The failure of the committee to generate support for its recommendations apparently did not damage Noyes's standing with ACS members since he was elected president in 1904.

By 1908, however, the pressure of specialization had become overwhelming. The Division of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry was the first division formed that year, in part in conjunction with publication of the new journal. Later that year, four other divisions were created: Agricultural & Food Chemistry, Fertilizer Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Physical & Inorganic Chemistry.

Formation of AIChE was another matter entirely. In 1902, ACS had eliminated the membership category "associate member," effectively making less stringent the qualifications required for full membership in the society.

As Browne and Weeks wrote: "The establishment of the Divisions by the Society did much to counteract, although it could not wholly prevent, the formation of new independent chemical societies. The Society has always had some members who, while maintaining a constant interest and an active participation in its activities, have felt the need of a more specialized organization with restricted requirements for admittance. This attitude is best illustrated in the case of the Society members who took part in founding [AIChE]—an event that closely coincided with the movement to establish Divisions."

AIChE did not "break off" from ACS. Most of its members and all of its original officers were, in fact, ACS members and remained so. It was a more "elite" organization than ACS, requiring members to be at least 30 years old with eight years of "practical experience in chemical technology" for members with a bachelor's degree and 10 years' experience for those without such a degree. "These extremely rigid membership qualifications," Browne and Weeks note, "far more severe than the very liberal requirement of [ACS], that 'any person interested in the promotion of chemistry may be nominated for election as a member,' were the feature of the Institute that was held to justify its existence as an independent chemical association."

Historical parallels are never exact, and I don't want to suggest that 2008 resembles 1908 as far as ACS is concerned. However, some similarities between the two eras are striking. Tension does still exist between the industrial and academic sectors of membership, with some industry members believing that academics exert too much control over governance.

Some members today are concerned about the proliferation of new ACS journals into ever narrower niches, with the potential for diluting the content of existing journals. The society itself is concerned about creation of boutique societies siphoning off membership from ACS and is looking for mechanisms to make the technical divisions more open and more nimble in their response to new areas of science, particularly those at the interfaces with other disciplines.

Sometime between 1902 and 2008, the "associate member" category was reintroduced—I have not been able to determine when. At the 235th national meeting just concluded in New Orleans, council voted, once again, to eliminate this category of membership and effectively make membership requirements more open (see page 50).

ACS is a dynamic organization serving a diverse membership that is committed to an ever-evolving discipline. It is fascinating to observe that so many issues that our predecessors grappled with in 1908 have parallels in today's world, a world so unbelievably changed in the ensuing 100 years.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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