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Purdue’s Wetherill Lab Named Landmark

ACS honors facility known for decades of groundbreaking research and education excellence

by Susan J. Ainsworth
May 22, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 21

Credit: Steve Scherer, Purdue University
Sands (from left), Wu, and Shepson.
Timothy D. Sands (from left), Marinda Li Wu, and Paul B. Shepson, stand near a plaque.
Credit: Steve Scherer, Purdue University
Sands (from left), Wu, and Shepson.

In recognition of its 80-plus years of service as a center for education and cutting-edge research, the American Chemical Society has designated Purdue University’s R. B. Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry building as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. The designation was celebrated with an April 26 ceremony at the building, which is on the university’s West Lafayette, Ind., campus.

“Through this designation, we honor the many researchers and remarkable accomplishments of the department of chemistry at Purdue” and their broad impact on chemistry and chemical education, said ACS President Marinda Li Wu during the ceremony.

In particular, “the research of Purdue faculty in organic chemical synthesis provides chemists worldwide with the tools to make complex molecules with precise structures—molecules that are used to produce a wide range of products that we use every day, from pharmaceuticals to agricultural chemicals, pheromones to plastics, and numerous other useful products,” Wu added. “I truly believe there is no profession that can have a greater impact on human life than chemistry, and techniques such as those developed at Purdue make chemistry’s achievements possible.”

Credit: Karnes Archives & Special Collections/Purdue U Libraries
Since its completion in 1955, the Wetherill laboratory has been home to trailblazing research in chemistry.
A black-and-white photo of Purdue’s R. B. Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry.
Credit: Karnes Archives & Special Collections/Purdue U Libraries
Since its completion in 1955, the Wetherill laboratory has been home to trailblazing research in chemistry.

During the ceremony, Wu presented Timothy D. Sands, Purdue’s executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, and Paul B. Shepson, head of Purdue’s chemistry department, with a commemorative plaque honoring the Wetherill laboratory.

The building was named for Richard Benbridge Wetherill, a local surgeon and lecturer in the Purdue University School of Pharmacy. The facility was constructed in phases between 1928 and 1955.

Generations of chemists and chemical engineers have studied in the building under renowned faculty including Nobel Laureates Herbert C. Brown and Ei-ichi Negishi.

Negishi received the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for palladium-catalyzed cross-couplings in organic synthesis. In this work, he developed chemical reactions that allow easy and efficient synthesis of complex organic compounds that are used in applications including pharmaceuticals and electronics.

Brown received the 1979 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work developing organo­boranes and other boron-based reagents, which opened new avenues in chemistry; these compounds continue to be used in pharmaceutical synthesis.

Earlier in the history of the Wetherill laboratory, other scientists made seminal contributions to chemistry. For example, in the 1930s and 1940s, Henry B. Hass studied chlorination of hydrocarbons and nitration of paraffins, which enabled the commercial-scale manufacture of products including nitroparaffin-based explosives. Later, Earl T. McBee, who studied under Hass, synthesized halogenated hydrocarbons and worked with fluorine compounds for use in refrigerants, anesthetics, and pesticides.

The Wetherill laboratory joins three other National Historic Chemical Landmarks in Indiana: Percy L. Julian’s synthesis of physostigmine, an important treatment for glaucoma, at DePauw University in Greencastle; the development of Rumsford baking powder, now owned by Clabber Girl in Terre Haute; and the development of diagnostic test strips that led to the self-treatment of diabetes and kidney disease, at Miles Laboratories in Elkhart.

Across the U.S., the program has awarded landmark status to more than 70 places, discoveries, and achievements in the history of chemical science and technology.

ACS launched the Chemical Landmarks program in 1992 to enhance public appreciation for the contributions of the chemical sciences to modern life in the U.S. and to encourage a sense of pride in the practitioners of those sciences.

Prospective landmarks can be nominated by ACS local sections, divisions, or committees. The landmarks committee reviews nominees, and the ACS Board Committee on Public Affairs & Public Relations approves them. For information about the program, visit


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