Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

“The Useful Science of Paul Emmett,” Dr. Burtron Davis

April 30, 2009

Video: “The Useful Science of Paul Emmett” 

0:48:13 - Abstract | Biography


Cliff Mead: So there may be others that will be coming in before I'm done with my introduction here, but I did want to say how pleased I am to be here today to introduce Burt Davis, who is the Associate Director for the Center for Applied Research in Lexington, Kentucky and who is this year's 2008 Resident Scholar Program Award winner. And this award, which was supported by the Judy and Peter Freeman Fund, is made available to individuals that are researching topics in the history of science and technology in the 20th century that will be able to make substantial use of the materials in the Ava Helen & Linus Pauling Papers at Oregon State.

Dr. Davis actually many, many years ago, not long after the Pauling Papers opened and we received the other papers – the Paul Emmett papers from Pauling's sister, who had married Paul Emmett – Burt was working on a, I think, I don't know if it was a paper or a biography of Emmett, even back then, but he was doing research work on the collection. So he had written from Kentucky a number of times asking for the – if we could go through the – as yet unorganized Emmett Papers, I mean archives, and find certain things that we could supply him with that would help him in his research. And so we did this over the years, and sometimes with more success than others. But I think Burt always expressed an interest in coming to OSU someday when he had the funds to try to do a thorough research of the Paul Emmett Papers for a biography that he wanted to do for Springer - Springer? Yeah, Springer was the company - that wanted to do a biography of Paul Emmett.

So it was when he saw that we had finally reinvigorated the Pauling Research Scholar Resident Scholar Program, he applied saying that he wanted to get on with his work of the biography of Paul Emmett, and particularly he wanted to find material about Paul Emmett's youth – his days here at Oregon Agricultural College before he went to Caltech. He wanted details about Emmett's sister and details about Paul Emmett's first and second wife and also material that might be in the collection regarding Emmett's work on the Manhattan Project during World War II. So when those funds became available and he was awarded it, he eagerly said that he would come here to spend the month of April doing the research, and, I think, he has been very busy this month, working here from the time we open in the morning right up until the time we force him to leave. And I will be surprised – it will just be our luck – that the day after he leaves, I guarantee you that the Canon copier that we have in the back will break down, and the warranty will be gone on it because Burt has made good use of that.

Just an example of the benefits of bringing a scholar such as Dr. Davis to this campus – it's not only rewarding to him in finding material for his work, but it's also rewarding to us. While going through one of the files, one of Emmett's research files, he found buried in the file the original manuscript that Emmett and Pauling - and this is in Pauling's handwriting, this is actually a photocopy because we've put the original... This is a 1925 paper that Pauling and Emmett did on the crystal structure of barite. It was, I think, the fifth paper that Linus Pauling had published, and we had never even seen even a photocopy of this paper. It had completely disappeared from anybody's files, and Emmett had the original in his documents, and so he uncovered this. And so, again, he has helped Pauling research scholars for the next time they come around to take a look at this original manuscript work.

So, having said all of that, I know that you have come here today to hear Dr. Davis give the results of his research, so I will turn the podium over to him, and I ask you to greet Dr. Burt Davis.

Burt Davis: Well I certainly want to start out by thanking the fund, the Peter and Judith Freeman Fund, without the incentive they provide, I probably would still be intending to come here to the archives, but you gave enough of a boost that I drove across country to see it. The archives are outstanding. Cliff and his staff have been most helpful. It's been a real pleasure to be here for the month. [5:17]

I have somewhat, well, when I came I had an exceptionally high opinion of Paul Emmett, and I leave with an even higher opinion of him. I've learned a lot about him going through the Archives. I never realized that he wrote things out so much in detail and planned ahead of time because when he gave lectures he never had notes. He would go to meetings, he would never write down anything. He'd come back two weeks later and goes to the blackboard and draws the figures, puts the numbers on it - no notes - and I thought that's the way he did everything. But no, he wrote out in great detail what he was going to do.

He was born in Portland about 1900 – well, not about 1900 – in 1900. He went to high school, Washington High School. In high school he had a teacher in Chemistry, Willie Green, and he taught Linus Pauling the year before, then he taught Paul Emmett. Both of them said that this high school teacher had a great impact on them deciding to go into science. So, teachers can have a big impact, and Willie Green impacted two of the giants.

They came to undergraduate – Pauling was a year ahead, but he took a year off to teach, and Emmett caught up with him, so they finished their last two years on this campus. There's an excellent picture that I like of them in their formal outfit walking on a path here, a gravel path, with a smile. And they were going to put the picture up, but that's alright. Emmett had a big smile as he always did. They have their hats on, ties, very formal, and that's the way Emmett went through life. He was more formal than most of us hillbillies who went without ties. He would show up to Gordon Conference – even in 1980 he would have his tie on and be formal.

They graduated from here; they both went to California Institute of Technology. At that time they had only had four Ph.D.s in Chemistry, so Caltech was just starting and didn't have a reputation. But one of the things they did was give a higher assistantship, in dollars, and so that had started attracting students to Caltech. When Emmett and Pauling graduated, they became – they were part of a class of four, so they doubled the output of Ph.D.s in Chemistry from Caltech, and they were certainly a powerful graduating class.

After Emmett finished his Ph.D., he came back and taught for one year here. I looked in the catalog: they had twenty faculty members in Chemistry at that time, and on the internet they only have twenty-five now. So these faculty – they taught a lot of courses back then – and I don't want to sully them, but the ones today are teaching a lot more students than they were then, but there aren't that many more faculty. He taught here for a year; he really missed research, and he was fortunate in that he went to the Fixed Nitrogen Lab in Washington, D.C. [9:38]

During the First World War, they became aware that nitrate was very important and blockades could prevent you from bringing it in from Chile. In fact, they prevented - they blockaded - Germany, and they couldn't import. But Fritz Haber had found how to catalytically make ammonia, and they developed the industry and probably prolonged the war for a couple of years because of being able to make ammonia. The United States didn't want someone to blockade them, so the War Department started the Fixed Nitrogen Lab. They had developed by the time Emmett went there in 1926, by brute force, the ability to make a catalyst that would do as well as what the Germans would. But they had little understanding, and Emmett just got there at the right time. He was the right person to do this. He developed tremendous scientific advances at the Fixed Nitrogen Lab. He was there for eleven years.

He then went to Johns Hopkins as Chairman of Department of Chemical Engineering, in fact, to start the department. He stayed there until 1943 when he joined the Manhattan Project. On the Manhattan Project he was responsible, supervised, about two hundred people. One of the big accomplishments of the Manhattan Project was the separation by diffusion of the uranium hexafluoride. But that is very corrosive, and so they needed gasket material, and the group that Emmett managed came up with about 15 mg. Now that's enough to see, but it's not much more than that. And on the basis of that 15 mg, they decided that they would be able to scale up the chemistry in six months, so they could make pounds and pounds of this material so that they would have the gasket material. And so while you hear a lot about physics, chemists also played an important role, and Emmett was leader of a group that made a great contribution to the Manhattan Project. And he continued to go to Oak Ridge until his death.

Following the Manhattan Project he went to Mellon Institute where he developed scientific understanding of another process that the Germans used during the Second World War to make transportation fuel, the Fischer-Tropsch process. Again, brute force let them make it, but they didn't understand it very well. Emmett provided, using isotopic tracers and other techniques that were just starting at that time, great understanding of the Fischer-Tropsch mechanism. And so, again, he was at the forefront in science.

He then left Mellon Institute to go back to Johns Hopkins. It was at Johns Hopkins where I was a post-doc under him when he was 65 and going to retire. So I was going to have the honor of being his last post-doc, he told me, but he stayed on until 1971, so there were a few post-docs after me. But, at least for a short time, I was his last post-doc.

One of the things that they – why would we be interested in Paul Emmett? What did he accomplish? Well, in my view, he accomplished much, and in the view of others, he accomplished much. When he went to the Fixed Nitrogen Lab, they say there was essentially no understanding of the ammonia synthesis. He used many scientific techniques that were in the stages of development. He came up with many landmark papers, and he developed a great understanding of this. Sir Hugh Taylor was one of the leaders in catalysis at the time; he described the work that Emmett did on ammonia synthesis as being enough material for a complete course on catalysis, that he covered all of the topics of catalysis, and he did it very well. [15:12]

He gave a talk on ammonia in 1976 at a meeting which Gerhard Ertl attended. Now Ertl, at that time, was a younger scientist, and he was looking for a research topic. I mention this because Emmett's work on ammonia and his talk was motivation for him to start applying surface science techniques to understand ammonia synthesis. And in 2006 Ertl got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, so Emmett had a great influence on a Nobel Prize winner who gives Emmett credit for getting him to move into that area of research and that he credits Emmett with much understanding of ammonia using much less sophisticated instruments than what Ertl was able to use from 1975 until now. And so Emmett was doing Nobel Prize quality work at the Fixed Nitrogen Lab, and the potential, if you equate it to what Nobel Prize winner Ertl said was of a quality for a Nobel Prize.

But the thing that Emmett is most widely known for is the BET method of measuring surface area. Early in the 1900s, Langmuir – Irving Langmuir – worked on chem. adsorption, the adsorption very tightly of a gas onto a surface of a metal. He studied this in detail in industry at General Electric, and in 1932 he got the Nobel Prize for his work on surface films, but Irving Langmuir only worked on a monolayer. Emmett, when he was at the Fixed Nitrogen Lab, and he said when he went there it became apparent that, to him, the question that had to be answered was is it the extent of the surface, or is it the quality of the surface that makes it a good catalyst? Well, at that time, they had no way of measuring either the extent or the quality. And the work that Emmett led at the Fixed Nitrogen Lab – when he left there to go to teach, he had defined the method to determine the extent of the surface and, not only the extent, but the quality by chem. adsorption. So it's very rare that you're able to ask two important questions when you start a job and in eleven years you can say, "I solved both of those problems." He not only solved them, but the BET paper that they published in 1938. There was a paper in 1977 – the citation index keeps track of a scientific paper is cited by someone else as being important to their work. The BET paper in 1975 - now this is 35 years later - was the second most cited paper in the physical sciences, so even more than Nobel Prize winner Pauling's papers. [19:31]

The BET Emmett paper was second most cited, but the first most cited was one of Lineweaver and Burk. Now it turns out, Lineweaver was a student in one of Emmett's catalysis courses that he taught at George Washington University. In his teaching, Lineweaver saw how to solve a biological problem that was cited even more. But now before we say, well, Emmett's isn't cited as much, we have to realize biologists publish a lot more than chemists, and the fact that they cite it six times more than the physical science – they publish six or ten times more. But the thing that, to me, is important that here Paul Emmett was directly or indirectly responsible for the two most highly cited papers in the physical sciences thirty years after they were published.

Now another paper, two years ago, was looking at the lifetime of scientific papers, and one of those that he looked at was the BET paper – the Brunauer, Emmett, Teller paper. Not only was it cited a lot in 1975, it's one of those that continues on to be cited more and more. So in 2006, it was cited much more than it was cited, and so its importance just keeps growing. And so, to me, here is another instance of Paul Emmett doing Nobel Prize quality work even though he didn't get it. Now they were nominated – Brunauer, Emmet, and Teller – for the Nobel Prize, but obviously they didn't get it.

These were three unique individuals. Brunauer was a Hungarian who came to the U.S. after high school. He became involved with the Hungarian Young Workers League, which the communists where supporting - now remember, this is in the 1920s when people hadn't heard of communism hardly. He attended City College of New York because of free tuition for one semester, but then he went to Columbia and paid tuition because Columbia was rated much more highly than City College of New York. But it was expensive, so he couldn't go there full time, so he alternated, eventually graduated from Columbia University magna cum laude, or ever how that you say it in Latin. According to him, he didn't even know what this was when they told him that that's what his degree was.

At that time, for civil service, Emmett had an opening, job opening. Civil service, you had to take in the exam, and if you had an opening, you had to take or you had to consider one of the top four scores. And so Emmett considered one of them, which was Brunauer, and so he hired him. Brunauer, while he was in New York, had ended up getting married to a woman who became very much into communism later on. But he went to Washington, went to work for Emmett. His wife stayed in New York, and she thought he was going to get a divorce, go to Reno and get a fast divorce. So one weekend she had him arrested, and so Paul Emmett gets a call on Monday morning – if he wants Brunauer to work that week, he's going to have to come down and bail him out of jail. Emmett went down and bailed him out of jail. Brunauer was very brilliant; he did great work. He did get a divorce, but it cost him over $5,000. Now $5,000, he was making $1,800 a year, and so the alimony was more than his salary, and so it was expensive. The woman that he married then was with the American Association of University Women; she was head of their international relations for a number of years. She joined the State Department in 1944 and was only the second female to hold the rank of Minister for the State Department. And she was the head of the group that founded UNESCO, so she was very influential. When McCarthy was looking for communists, one of the people that had known the Brunauers in the 1930s gave them their name, and so both he and she lost their jobs at the Navy and at the State Department because of McCarthyism. [26:04]

The other one of the BET was Teller, who went on to become known in the popular press as "father of the H-bomb." Apparently he hated that name, but it stuck with him. Surprisingly, he also had problems with McCarthyism because one of the people that he worked closely with was Klaus Fuchs, who went back to England and was the one who leaked all of the atomic secrets to the Russians. So Teller, even though he was very hard-lined, I guess is one way to describe it, was suspect by the McCarthyites because he had been closely associated with someone who defected.

So the BET paper, I say, is Nobel quality. The ammonia synthesis work that Emmett did is Nobel quality – and that's not me saying it's Nobel quality, it's a Nobel Prize winner saying what Emmett did was the foundation, and Emmett's talk was what got him interested in working on ammonia. So he had a great influence in the area of catalysis; he was at the highest rank. If you ask anyone in catalysis to name one of the top five people in catalysis, Emmett will be one of those named. But to me, Emmett's science was great, but as a person he was even greater. I've never known anyone that was more likeable, more approachable; he just had tremendous human qualities. For example, his first wife refused to fly, so when they went to scientific meetings, Emmett would drive. It didn't matter if the meeting, where it is, they drove because she didn't fly. He'd go to a meeting in Europe; they'd take the boat because she wouldn't fly. And he never complained. Now you've got to remember when I was there, he was sixty-five; he was still going to Oak Ridge. He'd take his wife, and they would drive. And he comes in one day to class, and he says, "I always thought people getting stuck in snow banks was, you know, not very smart." And he says, "But this weekend coming back from Oak Ridge, we got stuck in a snow drift." Now this was before the interstates, and so here he is, it's getting late in the evening, it's dark, he's got the lights on, and he didn't see this big snow drift, and he got in it and couldn't get out. Fortunately, he said, he saw a light over in the field, and so here him and his wife go over to this farmer's house. The farmer was nice and put them up for the day. By the next day the snow plow got his car out, and he drove on to Baltimore. But he said, "From now on, people are not stupid who get stuck in snow banks," so he had the ability to change his mind. [30:19]

His first wife died. She apparently didn't want to give up the doctor in Pittsburg – now he had left Pittsburg in 1955. In about 1970 he took his wife to Pittsburg because she needed a checkup; it was time for the annual checkup. And while she was sitting in the waiting room, she had an attack; it turned out it was a brain clot, and she never gained consciousness after that. She survived for eight more months, around-the-clock nurse. He spent an awful lot of time there hoping that he'd be able to communicate, but never did, so that was very tough on him.

But then after he retired, he came to Oregon. He had known the sisters of Linus when he was younger. He met Pauline; they started whatever you do at that age. They got to know each other better, and Pauline told me this – she was an amazing person, she had every bit as much energy as Linus – and when she told me this, she was ninety-one years old. Her apartment's on the second floor of the house, and she went up the steps faster than I could without holding onto the handrail. She'd almost jog up the steps at ninety-one. One of the things that she was fussing about was that she was going to have to give up driving and give her car away because Linus had told her, "You're ninety-one. If you have an accident, it doesn't matter whose fault it is, they're going to blame you. You're too old, you can't drive." So she listened to Linus and gave up her car, but she only drove it to play cards, and her daughter-in-law would take her to play cards. It wasn't that much of a sacrifice, and she made one of her nieces happy by giving her the car. She also told me when they were going together, Dr. Emmett got down on his knee and proposed, and he said, "I'm not getting up until you say yes." She said no; he stayed there. Eventually she gave in and said yes, and so he got up. And she said in ten or fifteen minutes, there was a knock at her door, and here stands Paul Emmett, totally soaking wet from an Oregon rain storm. It turns out he always got a Chrysler New Yorker, and this one he had found, instead of going back to the dealer and getting it fixed, he found if he took a screwdriver and moved it, he could then get the car started. But after ten minutes of looking, he couldn't find the screwdriver, so he needed a screwdriver. And there he is, all wet, and he got a screwdriver, got his car started, in a way.

I never saw him upset, except one time when a young student was giving, at the First North American Catalyst Meeting, was giving a talk in which he described ammonia synthesis catalyst with much more confidence than what he should've been describing it, on the basis of the data that he had. And Emmett would usually get up and give a compliment before he would ask a difficult question – not this time. He charged to the microphone, first in line, and he was not at all complimentary. But that's the only time I've ever seen him other than what you would call a perfect gentleman. [35:33]

One of the things that Pauline did - well, she got involved in many things - she was selling, had a store selling coins for a while. She had to give that up because she said that she was very good at buying them, but she wouldn't sell them after she bought them. She wanted to keep them, and you go into debt that way, and so she had to quit that. She had many jobs: one of them, she got involved in quilting. She'd make big quilts, and so she needed a design. So Professor Emmett came up with a design for her, and this is when platinum organic compounds were becoming very popular, so he told her to make one. It was very symmetrical: four platinums, sixteen methyl groups. And so she made an enormous quilt with these chemical compounds in it, and I don't know whether it's in the Linus Pauling Collection, or not. There was a note at the bottom of one of them that Linus was telling her don't rush sending it to him, so I don't know whether she took that he doesn't want it or she finally sent it to him, but if you can find the quilt, it's probably a prize winner.

One of the things that one should do in a university is not talk too long. I hope I've convinced you that Paul Emmett is certainly deserving of study and of having his archives at Oregon State University because he started out here long ago and is here. I hope I'll be able to add to this; I have two things I've promised. One is I've started making videos of people/history in catalysis, but I didn't start in time. I was able, however, to get six one-hour lectures that Emmett gave at Oakridge, and so I've provided a copy of that. The other things, more important, are ammonia synthesis catalysts. They had almost a thousand ammonia synthesis catalysts at the Fixed Nitrogen Lab that were studied in great detail. They're almost a hundred years old now. Somehow Emmett hauled these from Baltimore to Pittsburg, back to Baltimore. He retired; he didn't bring them out here. He left them with a professor that was going to Hendley's graduate students at Johns Hopkins. When that professor retired, he called me and said that the catalysts are here and no one wants them. So I fly to Baltimore, rent a car that was almost too small, load it up with these boxes, and so now I have hundred-year-old catalysts filling my garage. I'll send them out to Cliff, and he can put them on display here.

With that, I thank you for your attention, and I say I hope I have convinced you that Paul Emmett is certainly worthy of study, but he's even more worthy as a human being. Thank you. [39:22]

Cliff Mead: So, I've got a question if I could ask you. During the month that you were here and given your expectations of what you might find, is there anything that particularly surprised you, or is there mostly just stuff to buttress what you already believed?

Burt Davis: The thing that surprised me most was how Emmett would organize talks. He has hundreds of outlines of presentations. When he gave them, he never had a note; he just would go up, and he would talk. And so that's the way I though he, you know, he could just do it. When I was taking his class at Johns Hopkins, someone would ask him a question, and the man would turn around and write numbers on the board – he'd make a whole table. This work was done in 1930, and this is 1965. So being somewhat suspicious, I copy one down, go look in the paper where it was, and he had it! So he would go, but he'd had preparation. For his research when he was at the Fixed Nitrogen Lab, he was just writing out the plan of what he was going to do. That was the biggest surprise, but there were a lot of surprises. Small things – one of them, he wrote a review in a letter to someone at Golf, where he had been supposed to review this book on catalysis, and he made the comment that it wasn't very good. In fact, it was more irritating than stimulating. He had excellent command of language, and I think his preparation in debating had a lot to do with this.

Audience member: He was here in Corvallis for, I don't know, a couple of years, my memory tells me, and then he went to Portland State. Did you come across any reason for him leaving here and going there?

Burt Davis: He was here for a year while he was still on the faculty at Johns Hopkins, and so he sort of was on sabbatical from Johns Hopkins, and he spent the year here. I didn't realize that, but that's what his files would indicate, and then he got the position in Portland.

Audience member: I remember him giving a lecture here, but I don't remember what the subject was.

Burt Davis: Oh, I'm sure it was catalysis of some kind.

Audience member: Do you know if he was nominated for the Nobel Prize more than once?

Burt Davis: That I don't know. In his files is the nomination – one of Stephen Brunauer's post-docs. Apparently the Nobel Prize selects people around the world every year, I don't know how they do it, but a few people to nominate them. So he nominated Brunauer, Emmett, and Teller, and their nomination is in the files.

Audience member: Gilbert Newton Lewis was nominated about nine times, and he never got it.

Audience member: Do you have an anticipated publication date for your biography?

Burt Davis: Optimistically, a couple of years.

Audience member: I'm not trying to put you on the spot.

Burt Davis: Oh, yes. No, it is how fast I can get throuh all of the stack - I have stacked it too high to go through now. I had started, but it's not very far along, but this has helped a lot.

Audience member: Well, you keep finding good stuff, so that's why I'm asking.

Burt Davis: And he's really worthy of it.

Audience member: Did Pauling ever convince Emmett of the value of vitamin C?

Burt Davis: Oh, yes. Emmett took vitamin C – megadoses.

Audience member: Well, I ask this question because one time either I or somebody I was with asked Pauline if she took vitamin C. She says, "Oh, no, I don't need that stuff." And she outlived Linus.

Burt Davis: Yes, she did.

Audience member: It proves that genetics are more important in life.

Burt Davis: But one of the things I asked her was how she had such a nice complexion, and so she told me what she used for her complexion so that at ninety-one, she looked maybe forty-five or fifty. [45:07]

Audience member: What stuff was it?

Burt Davis: Oh, it's some kind of creams, but the one that was recommended to her was very expensive, but she found you could buy it much cheaper, so she bought the cheaper brand.

Audience Member: What was the material that was synthesized for the gaskets?

Burt Davis: Oh, I should've said. It was the perfluoropolymer, which became Teflon. And, I say, they only had 15 mg of this when they decided that yes, we can scale the chemistry up. So there would've been some people really in hot water if they hadn't been able to scale it up because you can't put the uranium fluoride in if it's going to get out.

Audience Member: And this was what year now?

Burt Davis: This was in 1943, I believe. '43 or early '44.

Audience Member: Because I thought originally Teflon was actually prepared by accident.

Burt Davis: Yes, at DuPont. This was not really Teflon; it was perfluoropolymer, though, of the same type as Teflon. I don't remember what the carbon structure was, and I don't think that Emmett put it in, but it was on the order of what Teflon is, and it certainly was resistant to the uranium hexafluoride. [49:30]

Cliff Mead: Well, if there are no further questions then, I thank all of you for coming on this beautiful, sunny afternoon, and I thank Burt Davis for being here, for being the Pauling Research Scholar for this year. And you've done a wonderful performance, and, well, we've got it on tape here so that others can see this in the future. Thank you very much, Dr. Davis.

Burt Davis: Oh, I enjoyed it very much. Thanks for coming. [48:13]


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