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A Centennial Stimulus

Milestone anniversary prompts ACS divisions to examine their efforts at preserving their past

by Linda Wang
September 29, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 39

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Historical texts, such as this 1952 book on the history of ACS, can be written only if there’s a good archive to draw from.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Historical texts, such as this 1952 book on the history of ACS, can be written only if there’s a good archive to draw from.

This year, four American Chemical Society technical divisions marked the 100th anniversary of their formation.

These divisions—Industrial & Engineering Chemistry (I&EC), Organic Chemistry (ORGN), Physical Chemistry (PHYS), and Agricultural & Food Chemistry (AGFD)—were among the first to be created by the society in 1908.

To commemorate the milestone, each division sponsored a centennial symposium during the ACS national meeting in Philadelphia. High-profile scientists, including Nobel Laureates, highlighted significant achievements in their fields over the past 100 years. In addition, ACS President Bruce E. Bursten sponsored a presidential symposium featuring a prominent scientist from each division.

To add to the celebration, I&EC put together a centennial volume titled “Innovations in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry: A Century of Achievements and Prospects for the New Millennium,” which includes a history of the division. It will be available through ACS Books by the end of the year. And ORGN is planning a series of video interviews of eminent organic chemists, which will soon be publicly available through its website,

What’s more, the Journal of Organic Chemistry will be publishing a series of commemorative perspectives starting next year. The Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry and the Journal of Physical Chemistry will also publish commemorative papers.

A centennial is certainly a time of celebration, but it’s also a time to evaluate the challenges that lie ahead. For many divisions, one issue that keeps resurfacing is the lack of a systematic and sustainable way to preserve and archive records pertaining to their activities.

“So much of our time and energy is consumed by doing our research and our teaching that it’s easy to postpone tasks that relate to managing the records of the past,” says Jeffrey I. Seeman, immediate past-chair of the Division of the History of Chemistry (HIST), member of the board of directors of the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), and member of ORGN. Seeman is producing the video project for ORGN. “This anniversary is an opportunity to not do business as usual but to stand back and say, ‘This is an important milestone in our division,’ and to ask, ‘What are the things that we need to do to celebrate its past and ensure its healthy and vibrant future?’ ”

Preserving a division’s history is important for many reasons. It often reflects the history of the field it represents, says Frank E. Walworth, assistant to the ACS secretary and president. “A division is formed because there’s an interest in that specialty, and the division exists to advance that field and keep it at the forefront,” Walworth explains.

Credit: Jennifer Landry
Shea works in CHF’s archival storage area, where several ACS division archives are kept.
Credit: Jennifer Landry
Shea works in CHF’s archival storage area, where several ACS division archives are kept.

In a collective way, divisional histories also reflect the growth of ACS as an organization. “This is ACS’s institutional history,” says Patrick Shea, senior archivist at CHF. “In planning for the future, knowing where you came from is invaluable.”

ACS created technical divisions to avoid losing its membership to independent associations, which had started to spring up in the early 1900s to address a growing demand by chemists for specialization.

On June 30, 1908, ACS created its first technical division, the Division of Industrial Chemists & Chemical Engineers. Later that year, the society formed the Divisions of Agricultural & Food Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physical & Inorganic Chemistry, and Fertilizer Chemistry.

The formation of divisions turned out to be a boon for ACS, which saw its membership climb from roughly 3,400 in 1907 to more than 5,000 by 1910.

The Division of Industrial Chemists & Chemical Engineers eventually changed its name to the Division of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry, Physical & Inorganic Chemistry split into two separate divisions, and the Division of Fertilizer Chemistry was renamed the Division of Fertilizer & Soil Chemistry. That division is now a subdivision of the Division of Agrochemicals.

And ACS continues to add new divisions. In Philadelphia last month, the ACS Council approved the formation of the probationary Division of Catalysis Science & Technology. The new division will be eligible for full status after a period of up to three years. If approved, it will be the society’s 34th division.

Because ACS currently doesn’t have an archive for the divisions, the responsibility for preserving history falls on the individual division. But it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.

“Quite frankly, we’re an all-volunteer army,” says Robert A. Volkmann, chair of ORGN and a senior research fellow at Pfizer. “We tackle the problems that we deem most important to our constituency, and the archives issue is not on the minds of our constituency.”

Gregory A. Voth, chair of PHYS and a professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, offers another perspective. “It’s not that we don’t care about our history, it’s just that we’re really busy,” he says. He would love to have a way of preserving PHYS’s history that’s simple and won’t increase the workload, he adds.

Part of the problem is that chemists generally lack knowledge in archiving. “I have a lot of records of various kinds going back, but I’m not a trained historian,” says William H. Flank, historian for I&EC and an adjunct professor of chemistry and environmental science at Pace University, Pleasantville, N.Y. “If we can get some guidance on what we should preserve, we can do a better job.”

Some divisions are turning to CHF for help. ORGN, for example, has agreed to donate 30 boxes of historical records to the foundation, which will archive and preserve the materials and make them available to the public. The division can continually add new materials to the archive. Digital records, such as important e-mail correspondences and meeting minutes, can be printed out and added to the collection, as well.

“We now will have a mechanism in place for anyone who wants to look at these archives at any time or use them for noncommercial purposes,” Volkmann says. “I think this is really going to be a plus for not only our division but also for ACS.”

Both HIST and the Division of Environmental Chemistry also have agreements with CHF to maintain their archives. “I’m hoping that what we’ve done will serve as inspiration for other divisions to do the same thing,” says Jim Bohning, historian and archivist for HIST and a professor of chemistry emeritus at Wilkes University, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Flank says I&EC is considering a similar arrangement with CHF.

Bohning says he would be willing to talk with any division that is considering archiving its records. In fact, Bohning is preparing a paper for the Bulletin for the History of Chemistry on his experience organizing the HIST archives and will include some suggestions for other divisions wishing to do the same.

Preserving a division’s history is a three-step process, Bohning says. The first step is to consolidate its records and important documents and photos. In collecting and consolidating the HIST archives, Bohning went to as many past officers as he could find and asked them to give him everything they had on the division.

The second step is to find a good repository for the archives, such as CHF. The third step is to establish a retention policy “so that when the next centennial history is written 100 years from now, the information will be there,” Bohning says.

Michael H. Tunick, secretary of AGFD and a research chemist at the Department of Agriculture’s Eastern Regional Research Center, says it would be nice to have some records of their past so they can know, for example, how many members they’ve had over the years to track their division’s growth. It would also be nice to have old photographs to share during anniversary celebrations like this, he says.

It’s never too late to start organizing your division’s records, Bohning says. Divisions with few historical records can put a call out to their older members, who might be willing to share documents and photos they’ve kept over the years.

Shea says that the types of documents CHF is interested in preserving are records that “tell a little piece of that division’s history.” For example, some things to save are founding documents, letters of incorporation, charters, lists of memberships for particular years, papers that were delivered at meetings, program abstracts, meeting minutes, correspondence from officers, documents marking a milestone or significant event, and financial records.

He says CHF will work with divisions on what specific types of things they should be saving. “We’re here to preserve the raw materials on which future histories will be written,” Shea says.

Bohning says that one of the keys to a successful archiving effort is to find an individual who is passionate about preserving history. “There may be some older member or retired member, someone who is not active in research anymore, who would be willing to take on the project and find it fun to do,” he says.

Divisions shouldn’t wait until their centennial to begin thinking about setting up an archive. “They should start now,” Bohning says.


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