Two centuries forever young

As the chemistry department turns 200 years old, the College of Arts and Sciences looks back on how the department became the powerhouse it is today.

In the four years since she has come to UNC-Chapel Hill, Bo Li has won recognition after recognition for her work in understanding how bacterial small molecules may help defend the body against infectious diseases, with an eye toward developing the next generation of antibiotics.

Top awards include some of the most prestigious honors given to young scientists: a New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, and a Rita Allen Foundation Scholars Award for biomedical research.

Li, an assistant professor of chemistry, was attracted to the chemistry department’s collegial atmosphere and the opportunity to collaborate with infectious disease researchers across campus, including pharmacy, medicine and biology.

In April, Carolina chemistry will celebrate its 200th birthday. A key secret to reaching this venerable milestone and achieving an international reputation has been to invest in generations of promising young scientists like Li and to provide them with the tools they need to thrive. Today, young scholars continue to work alongside foundational members of the department — people like Royce Murray, who has been on the faculty for 58 years.

Investing in rising stars has been a hallmark of the department since the William F. Little era. Little came to Carolina as a chemistry instructor in 1956 and nine years later, at age 35, became chair. Regarded as the heart, soul and energizing force of the chemistry department, he created a congenial environment in which excellence was expected and success was widely celebrated.

Rather than hiring more senior faculty, as was done elsewhere to raise a department’s profile, he hired promising young scholars, invested significant resources in furthering their research and aided them in getting tenure, trusting that many would remain at Carolina and continue to contribute.

In five years, Little nearly doubled the number of faculty members — up to 30 — and elevated the department’s stature. He understood that bringing in new faculty required expanding lab space well beyond Venable Hall, chemistry’s home since 1925, so he aggressively sought funding to build Kenan Labs, which opened in 1971.

“With improved lab space, you can do a better job recruiting the best and brightest faculty and students, so getting Kenan built was huge,” said renowned inorganic chemist Joe Templeton, Francis Preston Venable Professor of Chemistry, who has been at Carolina since 1976.

Likewise, the Carolina Physical Science Complex, which broke ground in 2004, has had a significant impact on recruiting the current generation of scientists. “That kind of huge investment pays off for decades, and Bill really started that thinking long ago,” Templeton said.

Little also was a driving force behind the creation of Research Triangle Park and Research Triangle Institute.

His first love, though, was the chemistry department, then-Chancellor Holden Thorp said when Little died in 2009.

“He created a culture where the coins of the realm were wisdom and encouragement. He was a giant,” said Thorp, who studied under Little in the 1980s and became chemistry chair in 2005. (Thorp went on to serve as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, then Carolina’s chancellor; he is now provost at Washington University in St. Louis.)

Giants of chemistry

Carolina’s chemistry department dates its origins back to the hiring of its first professor, Denison Olmsted, who taught chemistry and mineralogy, arriving in Chapel Hill in 1818 and staying for eight years.

As the chemistry department grew, it attracted the man who would become known as the founding father of Carolina chemists, Francis P. Venable, in 1880.

Almost immediately, Venable set the department on a quest for knowledge. He was the first faculty member to hold an earned Ph.D. (instead of an honorary doctorate), and in 1893 was named to the first endowed chair at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Mary Ann Smith Professorship, to “teach both the science of chemistry and its experimental application to the useful arts.”

In 1900, Venable moved from the chemistry department in Person Hall to South Building, where he served as Carolina’s president for 14 years. During his tenure, Venable oversaw a significant increase in both students and faculty. He returned to the chemistry department as chair in 1914.

His exams always began with the question, “What is chemistry?” The acceptable answer was: “that branch of sciences which investigates … the synthesis and analysis of matter.”

That definition only scratches the surface of what chemistry involves today, said Maurice Bursey, but the question was a good starting point. Bursey, an award-winning professor emeritus of chemistry, wrote the departmental history Carolina Chemists,published in 1982 to celebrate the centennial of Venable’s arrival at Carolina. Another book, seven years later, focused exclusively on Venable.

Venable retired in 1930, but two of his students, John Motley Morehead and William Rand Kenan Jr., would go on to profoundly influence the trajectory of 20th-century American industry — as well as Carolina’s way forward.

After completing chemistry courses in 1891, Morehead teamed with a Canadian inventor to seek an inexpensive way to produce pure aluminum. One experiment created a dark, glassy rock — calcium carbide.

When calcium carbide was placed in water, it released acetylene gas, and when the colorless gas was mixed with air, it burned brightly, Venable and Kenan found.

It would take several more years, but the perseverance of Venable, Kenan and Morehead led to the world’s first commercial calcium carbide plant, which later became Union Carbide. Acetylene is still used for welding and metal cutting and as a raw material in the synthesis of many organic chemicals and plastics.

Emerging prestige

In the second half of the 20th century, the chemistry department grew both in rank and prestige.

When Murray arrived in 1960 (just a few years after Little), the faculty numbered fewer than 15 and all worked from labs in the sprawling ranch-style Venable Hall. There were two National Academy of Sciences (NAS) members in the department, and Murray — an analytical chemist with research interests in electrochemistry, molecular design and sensors — brought that number to five by 1991. Today, the nearly 50 faculty members include seven NAS members.

Murray has amassed just about every major honor in his field, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, plus fellowships in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as being named editor of the preeminent journal in his field, Analytical Chemistry.

University administrators have turned to the Kenan Professor of Chemistry and former department chair to help guide the design of new lab facilities — first Kenan Labs, and later, the physical science complex.

For the latter project, Murray formed a building committee of chairs whose departments would be housed in the new facilities. That group, plus the architect’s belief that a building should adapt to its users’ needs, helped ensure the project’s success, Murray said.

One building bears his name, thanks in large part to one of his former students. Lowry Caudill, who did his senior research in Murray’s lab before graduating in 1979, provided the $5 million gift that funded the naming of Murray Hall.

Caudill, an accomplished analytical chemist and entrepreneur, co-founded Magellan Laboratories in 1991 and served as worldwide president of pharmaceutical development for Cardinal Health when it acquired Magellan. He is a past chair of Carolina’s Board of Trustees and is an adjunct professor of chemistry. The science complex’s new chemistry building is named after Caudill and his wife, Susan.

Ask another Little devotee, Maurice Brookhart, about Carolina chemistry, and the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Chemistry points to a track record of success.

He described the department as a booming research enterprise that remains strong in the core areas of organic, inorganic, physical and analytical chemistry while expanding in materials science, biological chemistry, catalysis and applied sciences.

“We’re not doing things much differently than other top-20 chemistry departments in terms of the way we’re structured and the way we teach — we’re just really good!” said Brookhart, an award-winning chemist in catalysis and NAS member, who joined the faculty in 1969 and retired three years ago.

The widespread spirit of cooperation continually brings in good young faculty and keeps them here, he added.

To keep reading, visit the College of Arts and Sciences website.