00:00:00BOHNING: [...] Dr. Renfrew, you were born on the twelfth of October 1910 in Spokane,
Washington. Can you tell me something about your family background, your parents?
00:01:00RENFREW: My parents were young parents. My father was a bookkeeper, who at that
time was working in a bank. My mother was a very delightful woman. At
ninety-eight, she has decided she's lived long enough, that she can't go on
indefinitely and she'd like to get it over with. When I left her to come to this
meeting she was still alert but not doing well. In any case; my parents were
young and made some of the mistakes young parents make on me, and didn't correct
all of them when my brother came along four and one half years later. I have a
chemist brother, Dr. Edgar E. Renfrew, who also received a Ph.D. in chemistry
from the University of Minnesota, and the two of us have had close
relationships. He will be coming out from Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, where he is
00:02:00now a retired research director, and will be seeing our mother next week. [Mrs.
Renfrew died while she was with the family in Moscow, Idaho.]
BOHNING: I see. What did your father do?
RENFREW: Well, he worked in banks as a teller and bookkeeper. He became an
accountant later on, mostly in the Inland Empire area around Spokane; he was an
accountant with the Potlatch Lumber Co. in my high school years. Later on, he
became ill, which was at just about the time I started college, and, during
Herbert Hoover's presidency, my mother became a postmaster in Potlatch, Idaho,
where we were living. Then during the war years, my father was a traveling
00:03:00accountant for the Weyerhaeuser people, who had originally operated the Potlatch
Lumber Company. My father ended his career working in the Tax Department for the
State of Washington.
BOHNING: Where did you grow up, in Washington or in Idaho?
RENFREW: Well, both. We moved around in the small towns near Spokane; I
graduated from high school in Potlatch, Idaho.
BOHNING: Can you recall anything about your early schooling, grade school and
leading into high school. Any teachers or anyone who had any particular
influence on you?
RENFREW: Yes. Most of my teachers influenced me. In Potlatch, we had
extraordinarily good teachers. Potlatch was a company town that was controlled
by a man named A. W. Laird, General Manager for the Potlatch Lumber Company, who
00:04:00was a laird in practice as well as in name. He ran a very proper small town in
which the schoolteachers were better paid than elsewhere in Idaho. They had to
toe the morally straight line (especially women teachers), but were hired
because of high competence. And I liked essentially all of my teachers. One
later became the author of the Lippincott series of science texts. A math
teacher later gained a Ph.D and became an astronomer.
BOHNING: What were your early interests, did you have anything specifically that
stood out among the other things that interested you?
RENFREW: My natural interests were in the arts and in music. I became a trombone
player at an early age and have continued this. I'm now a member of the Hog
Heaven Seven, which tries to play Dixieland, of the Vandal Boosters Nonmarching
Pep Band that fills in at University games and rallies, and also of the Pullman
City Band. Also, one of my watercolors was used in promoting our University
Centennial celebration. If your tape will stand it, I can tell you how I became
00:05:00converted to an interest in chemistry.
I became a chemist primarily because I had an uncle who was a chemist. His name
was F. Bradley MacKenzie. He at one time was the research director and later the
quality control head for the Carnation Company. He spent his whole professional
life at Carnation. I became a chemist because Bradley was a chemist. The story
that I'd like to tell you is why he became a chemist. According to Bradley he
had been working on a threshing crew in the wheat fields around Pine City,
Washington, just before going to college. By the time the harvest was over, he
decided that he didn't want anything to do with farming in his future life. When
he arrived at Washington State Agricultural College, it's now Washington State
University, the students were lined up for registration in a large gymnasium
00:06:00area with signs on tables where students could go to select a major. The first
table was marked 'agriculture', and he knew he didn't want that. The next one
was 'botany', and he was afraid that was some kind of agriculture. The next
table was 'chemistry'. He didn't know what chemistry was, but he felt he
couldn't go on shilly-shallying around. He ought to make up his mind. So he went
over and stood in that line! His success prompted me to become a chemist. And
that's how my brother became a chemist, too, although his B.S. degree from the
University of Idaho was in physics.
BOHNING: Did he talk to you about chemistry? When did you have your first course
in chemistry, in high school?
RENFREW: No, I had my first course in college. I was better prepared than many
00:07:00students. We had an excellent physics teacher in high school, a good biology
teacher and we also had a truly superior math teacher; I took all the math that
was offered through solid geometry. I arrived at college with biological science
and physics in my background but no chemistry.
BOHNING: But did Bradley talk to you about chemistry, had you seen any of his work?
RENFREW: I suppose somewhat, although I wasn't... He never particularly tried to
influence me, but I was a practical sort. Although my interest really would have
been in becoming a newspaper man, say, an editor or a writer, I knew that small
town newspaper people didn't do very well financially. Bradley was considered to
be quite prosperous by young people at the time. So, with a practical bent, I
thought I'll become a chemist. I never really regretted the choice, although I
00:08:00didn't start working hard at chemistry until I was approaching the end of my
college undergraduate years. I would probably have been better prepared all
through my later professional life, if I'd taken fewer English courses and more
math courses in college. If your tape permits these kinds of recollections I
will continue my college commentary.
BOHNING: Sure. Go ahead.
RENFREW: At the time I entered the University of Idaho we had a college
president who [held that the chief emphasis in education should not be on
teaching but on learning. He was determined to give a real education to young
people.] He was convinced that students who came to school and had teachers who
thought of grades as very important would suffer as far as getting a [genuine]
education was concerned. [He also recognized that as students coming from small
towns in the far west we had enjoyed few cultural advantages. He wanted to
remedy these weaknesses by bringing in outside artists and musicians and
outstanding thinkers of the period. He wanted us to read good books that had
nothing to do with our classes. I tried to read one good book each week outside
of courses. One student who was trying to read one book a day was in my freshman
chemistry lab. I recall that he was having a bad time completing War and Peace
in an evening laboratory session while conducting experiments. His grades
weren't outstanding, but he later became a foreign language professor at a major university.]
This president had come to Potlatch, while I was a high school senior, and had
talked about his plans; how he wanted us to feel that, when we came to the
university, if there was something important that really interested us, we
00:09:00should cultivate that interest, instead of preparing for the next day's
examination. And, as a college undergraduate, I took him quite seriously! But
the faculty at the university was less enthusiastic. He had early on said that
he wanted our young people to have contacts only with the best teachers in the
university. He wasn't going to fire any of the others, but he just wanted the
best teachers to be the ones students were exposed to. Naturally, not all
members of the faculty were sure they were going to be in the best-teacher
category. So he encountered resistance almost from the first day he arrived on
campus with the consequence that he lasted only two years. He went on to become
the head of the Office of Higher Education in Washington, D.C. His name was
Frederick J. Kelly. He had a large influence on my life.
But in any case, I started trying to become more serious about my math and
science courses later on. I wound up with a B average instead of a higher
00:10:00average. But I hadn't really felt grades were too important. (For example, I
accepted without protest my C grades in scientific German: the rather eccentric
instructor said that I did B work but should have done A work so I was given the
C grade.) Actually the extra creative writing courses I took in early college
years turned out to be professional assets. Thanks to them I had an easier time
writing technical reports than did many of my associates. My reports required
minimum rewriting by my supervisors, who were properly grateful.
BOHNING: Your selection of the University of Idaho; was that a foregone
conclusion? Or were there any other possibilities?
RENFREW: It was essentially a foregone conclusion. I lived twenty miles from the
University of Idaho. Also, I lived twenty miles from Washington State University
where my favorite uncle had gone, but there were no tuition problems if I went
to Idaho. And I had respect for the institution.
BOHNING: Can you tell me something about your first chemistry course at Idaho?
That was the first formal time that you'd been exposed to chemistry.
RENFREW: We had as the freshman chemistry professor the head of chemistry. His
name was Dr. Carl Leopold von Ende; he was a native of Iowa, but he had received
00:11:00his Ph.D. in Germany. He was a man of high moral standards, rather rigid
standards. He was a colorful lecturer who really made us do things strictly the
way he felt they should be done. Basically I think he always had a weakness in
math and he recognized his own weakness, and so he was determined that all of us
chemistry majors at the University of Idaho would remedy what he found deficient
in his own approach to science. All of our problems in freshman chemistry had to
be worked with logarithms. Because of this some of the students, particularly
home economics majors and nurses, could never pass the course because they
couldn't handle logarithms. We had very rigid rules in the laboratory. Every
entry had to be recorded in ink in the bound notebook. Anybody caught writing on
a scrap of paper suffered the loss of the data. Our bound notebooks in which we
took the notes on lectures were collected at the end of every week, and the
00:12:00instructor in our quiz sections had to review these to make sure that we were
getting the material recorded properly. Then we were given weekly quizzes on the
lecture material. Our quantitative experiments in the laboratory had to be done
very precisely with analytical balances. Now and then students who weren't doing
well would copy data from a fraternity brother's notebook of several years past.
But the instructors had kept detailed records of all the vital elements of the
quantitative experiments: the weights of precipitates and the dishes and so on.
Every now and then they would find some poor fellow that they were convinced had
not really done the experiment. They would then go back and dig out the records
for past years and find the identical data in the big book! Anyway, in my
freshman year we learned that chemistry was a precise science.
00:13:00BOHNING: What kind of laboratory experiments did you do?
RENFREW: Oh, we prepared oxygen and determined the weight of a liter of oxygen
at STP, and we did the combining weight of lead, etc. They were good, honest
experiments for the time, and the quantitative experiments had to be done properly.
BOHNING: What kind of facilities did Idaho have for chemistry?
RENFREW: We had good facilities. Nowadays when I'm conscious of defective fume
hoods, I wonder how good ours really were. I know that we never had instructions
on how to use a hood properly. No one knew how in those times, of course. But we
had fume hoods in the laboratory, and we did our weighing on good analytical
00:14:00balances. They were German analytical balances. The laboratories were well-kept
and, at the time I entered them, were quite new. Again, since I have become
conscious of safety problems with hoods, I remember how we had the hydrogen
sulfide supply lines almost out the front of the hoods and how students used to
stand there bubbling hydrogen sulfide into the qualitative analysis test tubes.
I have wondered since why we didn't kill some students. But nobody ever
complained to my knowledge; we thought that was the way you did chemistry.
(Nowadays, Jay Young says we're going back to H2S because we will be sued if we
use thioacetamide, which is an anticipated carcinogen.)
BOHNING: I haven't heard Jay say that. But I...
00:15:00RENFREW: That's what he said. We had a row about it in a meeting today concerned
with the revision of safety in academic chemistry laboratories.
BOHNING: How many faculty were there in the chemistry department?
RENFREW: I suppose we had seven or eight. I'd have to name them to be sure, but
I think we had eight members.
BOHNING: Were there a large number of chemistry majors?
RENFREW: Perhaps ten or twelve each year. Actually, chemistry and chemical
engineering at that time were combined. I'm a little fuzzy in my memory as to
who were chemical engineers and who were chemists. We shared many courses. At
one time, for the period in which I was enrolled as a graduate student, ACS ran
analyses of the institutions of the country that had turned out the most Ph.D.s
00:16:00per capita based on the undergraduate program, and Idaho ranked second. As I
recall Oberlin was first.
BOHNING: Who was chairman of the department?
RENFREW: By this time Dr. von Ende had died, and I think one of the reasons our
average went up was that Dr. Louis C. Cady took over as chairman. He had been an
Idaho student who had stayed on for a Master's degree, then joined the faculty,
and later went to Wisconsin for a Ph.D. While he was at Wisconsin he found out
what went on in the world, and when he came back he did a wonderful job in
organizing our students to get them into graduate school. There were no jobs
available in those Depression years. He had each one of us select four or five
schools, eliminating overlap, that we would be interested in attending on a
stipend. Then he would write letters promoting our candidacy at the selected
00:17:00schools. We had quite a high percentage of our chemistry majors going on to
BOHNING: I see. You mentioned an interesting point. The Depression occurred, I
guess, in your freshman year. Is that right?
RENFREW: Well, yes. I entered in the fall of 1928. The Depression became a real
problem to many people over the next decade.
BOHNING: Did that affect you in terms of staying in school?
RENFREW: No. My parents were determined that my brother and I would get college
educations so there had been savings accounts set up for us at an early age.
When I graduated with my first college degree, I succeeded in getting
assistantships, first in physics and then in chemistry. They paid around $400; I
was supposed to get $500 a year on the first one, but it was reduced to $425
because of the Depression. But I could live quite well on $425 for ten months in
00:18:00Moscow [Idaho]. The way I got the physics assistantship was unusual. There were
no assistantships in chemistry at the time, but the physics department had one
assistantship. It had been offered to a student from the University of Kansas.
But the Idaho legislature passed a law that no state jobs could be given to
anyone who was not already a resident of the state of Idaho, and the appointment
was withdrawn. Well, there was no physics major who was qualified to be a
teaching assistant, and so the head of physics gave me the appointment. I
learned my physics while trying to teach it. I'd had trouble in engineering
physics myself, and suddenly I found myself leading problem-solving sections in
engineering physics! Then at the end of the year, Dr. von Ende felt that this
teaching assistant business was the way to lower the costs and get more help,
and so he started hiring teaching assistants. I spent two years as a teaching
00:19:00assistant in chemistry.
BOHNING: What did you take next after your freshman year?
RENFREW: We had a sophomore inorganic course at the time that went deeper into
BOHNING: Do you remember any texts you may have used?
RENFREW: The sophomore text was by a man named [William H.] Chapin
. (There's an NSF man of that name who comes to
meetings. I've asked him if he's related to the author of that text and he says
there's a remote connection.) The text that we had bought for our freshman
course was by Harry Holmes, who had been a young Oberlin instructor
, but we didn't use it very much. Dr. von Ende's
00:20:00lectures were the things that really counted.
BOHNING: As you proceeded through those last years, was there any area of
chemistry that drew your interest more than the others?
RENFREW: No. Our courses were not the equivalent of modern chemistry courses at
a good university. Dr. von Ende taught the physical chemistry course. He again
did it by lecturing from detailed notes. Often this involved his copying down on
the black board the analytical data from the original literature in which, for
example, people had found that atomic lead from different sources had different
atomic weights. We would record the data. When we got through with that set of
lectures, my conclusion was that, based on my experience in analytical
chemistry, I wasn't sure they really had found a difference. But Dr. von Ende
was greatly impressed by the precise atomic weight methods of Theodore William
Richards. We had bought the Getman and Daniels text in physical chemistry
. It was the best seller of the day. But we had no
00:21:00reading assignments and we were not asked to work the problems. The organic
course was taught by Dr. J. A. Kostalek, who had had industrial experience, was
a very able lecturer, and had all sorts of interesting anecdotes. But his
version of organic chemistry involved taking a particular organic group and
lecturing a couple of weeks on that; we then had a "final" exam. We would then
put that group out of the way, and take up the next one, forgetting about those
past. We did have as a reference the Norris text
that did add interest and authority. When, later on in life, I won the American
Chemical Society Northeastern Section's Norris Award for Teaching I felt there
was poetic justice in my selection (as an early student of the founder).
BOHNING: Did you do any research as an undergraduate?
RENFREW: As an undergraduate senior, we had to do a research project for two
credits over the year. It wouldn't qualify as a research project by present
standards. Dr. von Ende was my advisor. He suggested several problems at the
00:22:00beginning of the year, and at the end I brought my thesis in. It had to meet the
literary standards of a thesis, i.e., properly typed and bound. I had worked on
"stick antimony electrodes" without any sensational results. It is unlikely that
anyone ever read the thesis, but I benefited from writing it.
BOHNING: Now, did he assign you as an advisee or did you select him.
RENFREW: Oh, we had some element of selection from among the faculty, but no one
could be overloaded. Rarely did anything publishable result. We also had to do a
long term paper in which we went to the literature and really read it. In many
ways it was a fine education, headed by a man who recognized deficiencies in his
own chemical training and who wanted us to be better prepared than he was. For
example, chemistry majors were required to take engineering physics followed by
a year of analytical mechanics. And so I've always been sympathetic to the
people who aren't Nobel Prize winners but who, in teaching chemistry, are really
doing the right thing by students.
00:23:00BOHNING: As you were approaching the end of those four years as an
undergraduate, and the times certainly hadn't improved much since 1929, had you
given any thought as to what you were going to do when you finished your
RENFREW: Well, as I say, there was essentially no place to go for a job. I fell
into the physics assistantship and then had two years in chemistry on teaching
assistantships but then I really had to do something. It was Cady who pushed us
into graduate schools, and I received the appointment at Minnesota. I also
received an offer from Stanford, but the one from Minnesota came in first, and I
had accepted. Actually, I had an alternative consideration. I'd taken a few
education courses along with my Master's program, and I had toyed with the
thought of teaching in high school. But the only two jobs that I really could
00:24:00have had (they were sort of thrust upon me) was one in Fairbanks, Alaska, where
I would have to be the coach for the tumbling team, and I didn't think I could
do that; the other was in Kimberly, Idaho, but I would have to get married
before I went there. So I went to Minnesota. The teaching assistantship at
Minnesota paid three hundred dollars a year. It was called half-time, but was
really a quarter-time, teaching assistantship. Minnesota had split their
assistantships to spread the opportunities for students. So I went to Minnesota
with that appointment, although Stanford's offer was much better financially.
Stanford was not then the prestige institution it later became.
BOHNING: That's less than what you were getting in Idaho.
RENFREW: I was supposed to do only half as much work as I did at Idaho. But when
I got there, it turned out that Minnesota had an unusually large enrollment of
undergraduates that Fall, and they had to have extra teaching assistants. So for
those of us who had these three hundred dollar appointments, our working time
00:25:00was doubled and our pay was increased to $450. So some teaching assistants got
$600 and some of us got $450 for the same loads.
BOHNING: I just want to come back for a moment to your Master's degree. You had
a paper on nickel sulfide
RENFREW: Yes, yes.
BOHNING: Is that part of your Master's thesis?
RENFREW: Yes. That was my Master's thesis. I've been trying to get Jean'ne
Shreeve to look at the current status of nickel sulfide. I feel that we could
expand that paper. Another fellow who was a Master's candidate and I
participated in the original paper with Dr. W. H. Cone. Cone had a theory about
"the nickel sulfide anomaly." You know, you can't precipitate nickel sulfide in
acidic solution, but once you get it precipitated, it won't redissolve in the
00:26:00acid. At least it dissolves very slowly. Cone was convinced that adsorbed
sulfide ions on the precipitate were there in sufficient quantity to maintain
concentrations exceeding the solubility product constant. We did quite a few
ingenious experiments to prove his theory, but the referees would not tolerate
this explanation when the paper was submitted. They felt we hadn't measured the
hydrosulfide ion content, there was no mention of activity coefficients, and so
on. They wouldn't accept it as written. To my knowledge the historic explanation
for the nickel sulfide insolubility still "holds", that is, the formation of
isomeric forms of differing solubility. I haven't really gone back to it in
recent years. Since I returned to Idaho, I have thought that I could do a little
more work, take some other data that Cone had collected, and pull all this
together as another paper. You've reminded me. I'm going to go back and ask
00:27:00Jean'ne if she's done anything with this. I told her that I didn't feel that I
was up to modern inorganic chemistry, but if I had an associate we might make a
BOHNING: Now, why did you stay on for the Master's degree at Idaho?
RENFREW: There really wasn't anything else to do.
BOHNING: And Cady didn't work on moving students into other graduate schools
until later, or was he already doing that when you went into the Master's program?
RENFREW: No. He did that after I'd started in the Master's program.
RENFREW: Dr. von Ende died early in my last year at Idaho, and Cady then became
BOHNING: How many other students that graduated with you from Idaho went on to
other graduate schools? Do you remember some of the other graduate schools they
00:28:00RENFREW: One of the fellows that I had roomed with went to Northwestern. One
went to the University of Illinois, and one had gone to Columbia. There were
four or five of us who went on to graduate school at that time; about half of us
eligibles went on.
[END OF AUDIO FILE 1.1]
RENFREW: One of them who left to go to the University of Cincinnati stayed there
just a year, then went to the National Bureau of Standards (or the Patent
Office) in Washington, and later became a patent attorney. When I returned to
the University of Idaho I was looking up our alumni, trying to get in touch with
them. I couldn't find this man. They'd lost all record of him, and didn't know
00:29:00what had happened. But just this last year, his widow gave $50,000 to chemistry
and chemical engineering for a scholarship fund in his honor. It turned out he'd
become quite a successful patent attorney, had spent a lot of time in government
service, maintained his sense of identification with our university even though
we had lost contact with him.
BOHNING: Those who didn't go on to graduate school, did they hope to find jobs?
RENFREW: Jobs of sorts. I'm not conscious of any of them who did a lot with
chemistry. One of them became, I recall, a sort of a salesman with General
Mills, primarily a flour salesman. One of them worked in the General Mills
control laboratories. I can't remember. Jobs in chemistry, like any kind of job,
were extraordinarily hard to find in those years.
00:30:00BOHNING: Well, how did you feel? Had you done any traveling before you went to
Minnesota or was that your first time leaving Idaho ?
RENFREW: That was my first real departure from Idaho although I'd had an
experience in traveling during that summer which will clutter up your tape.
BOHNING: Oh, no.
RENFREW: I'd spent the summer with a tent show of traveling players. I'd had
early ambitions as an actor and I'd appeared in several college plays. One of
the dying repertory groups came through Moscow that spring. I talked to them
just before deciding to go to Minnesota. It was agreed that I would join the
show after Commencement. I doubled in brass, playing the trombone in the
orchestra, and did various parts in the plays. I played juveniles, heavies, and
"G-strings" (i.e., squeaky-voiced oldsters), and I sold prize-containing candy
boxes between acts. The boxes were marked so we could sell those with flashy
prizes first in order to encourage continuing sales. (Sometimes I gave out a
good prize "late" to a little old lady or her pretty daughter. The concession
owner would grumble about my poor salesmanship.) We traveled around the
Northwest, spending a week in each small town with a different play each night.
The R. Ferris Taylor players were among the last of the "Toby shows." That is, a
couple of our plays featured "Toby", a country boy who outwitted city slickers.
But we also played Broadway shows -- with a change in name to avoid royalty
payments. Ferris Taylor was a brother of Glen Taylor who became a United States
00:31:00Senator from Idaho and later on ran for Vice President with Henry Wallace. They
were the children of an itinerant evangelist, I believe, and they'd all grown up
playing musical instruments, singing, and so on. One of their sisters was Lee
Morse, who made her name on Broadway appearing in musical comedies and had the
Blue Grass Serenaders as a band that accompanied her in tours and in recordings.
The group that I was with were professional actors. Ferris later had minor
success in Hollywood and in television. He was convinced when I joined them
that, having had a touch of show business, even though there was no business,
I'd never get out of it. He was holding until the time I left that I'd never get
away. They were planning to wind up the summer and fall in Hollywood with their
tent. However, we were burned down in Yakima, Washington, at a time of union
trouble, which helped my decision to leave! We were non-union. We kept going in
Yakima for a couple of weeks in an idle movie house while they located another
tent. But I gave up when they left on a dark night heading toward California.
BOHNING: Were you torn at all between going on in chemistry and pursuing your
interest in the arts?
00:32:00RENFREW: I knew the arts weren't practical. When I was with Ferris Taylor's
show, I was supposed to get fifty dollars a week, an excellent wage for that
period, but I collected only seven dollars a week, on a good week, eight
dollars. As a bachelor I lived in the tent, of course, and we could get
seven-course dinners for thirty-five cents in many towns in those days. I also
picked up some extra money going house to house to make appointments for family
photographs. One of our actors also was a professional photographer. He gave me
50 cents for each appointment that I scheduled. I could live all right, but I
wasn't making my fortune.
BOHNING: What did you find when you got to Minnesota? What was it like?
RENFREW: Well, it was a heady experience. I still have great respect for the
University of Minnesota, and had great admiration for my major professor there,
George Glockler. He later became head of chemistry at the University of Iowa. He
was another German, but he was a more flexible German than Dr. von Ende had
00:33:00been. And I had really a good experience there. I was a little older, and I'd
had some advanced training. Of course, I already had been a teaching assistant
for three years, including that unusual year in physics. Although I never
claimed credit in my record for taking advanced physics courses, it really gave
me an edge as a physical chemistry major at Minnesota. But then, I took organic
chemistry as a minor, which was uncommon for physical chemistry majors. Most
chose physics as a minor, but I felt organic chemistry would be more practical.
So I chose the combination of physical and organic, which turned out to be a
very happy choice. I had good relationships in the organic department and good
relationships in physical chemistry. Although I didn't do everything right, I
succeeded in winning the Du Pont Fellowship. There were only two fellowships at
Minnesota at the time that would provide income for study without having a
00:34:00teaching obligation. One of them paid $500 a year; Fred [Frederick T.] Wall,
another Glockler student, had that. I got the Du Pont Fellowship which was $750.
You could live like a king on $750 at that time. I didn't have to pay fees or
tuition. Again, well I don't want to get you too far off the track.
BOHNING: Oh, no, fine. Go ahead.
RENFREW: Well, one of the things that showed how casually teaching was taken in
those times is this. In the second year at Minnesota, when I was a teaching
assistant in the freshman program, the professor who taught my assigned course
called me in and said that I was to be in charge of the laboratories. He said,
"Here's the lecture textbook," and he also gave me a laboratory textbook: I
think that it was the Demming lab book
. For lectures
00:35:00he was using a Minnesota textbook of which he was the co-author. I tried to
follow him by assigning experiments that had something to do with the lectures,
in so far as I could keep track of them. But I never pre-tested the experiments.
I'd never seen them before. I would choose experiments, making sure that the
stockroom had the materials that were required. We had eight sections in this course.
Everything went along really quite well until it came to the preparation and
properties of chlorine. I'd noticed that in our laboratories, there were little
canopy hoods around on the bench tops, and I thought, "Well, isn't that nice,
there will be no problem with ventilation". Unfortunately those hoods had never
been hooked up to an exhaust system, as I heard later on. On the Monday that we
00:36:00started with the preparation and properties of chlorine, midway through the
morning, one of the teaching assistants appeared, wild-eyed, down at my door in
the basement of the chemistry building. He said, "We've got to do something. The
kids are hanging out the windows coughing. And there's chlorine all over!" Well,
before I could get upstairs, Dr. Lillian Cohen, who was a professor of inorganic
chemistry and a dominant female type, took command. She had an anathema for
chlorine; reportedly a relative had been killed with chlorine gas in World War
I. She had always made sure that Minnesota didn't do anything with chlorine in
the freshman courses. When she came into the building that morning and smelled
chlorine, she came roaring upstairs and cleared the lab, got the students out of
there. By the time I arrived, she was all ready for me. She gave me my first
00:37:00real safety lecture. It didn't really make as much of an impression on me as a
Du Pont explosion did later on, but it was a genuine safety lecture, and I'd
never had one before.
BOHNING: Here is a question because of your present interest in chemical safety.
As you went through Idaho and Minnesota, and you just said you'd never had a
safety lecture before, were there any comments or any indications on the part of
the faculty about safety? Safety glasses or use of the hood?
RENFREW: Oh, no. We had no safety glasses. Actually, I suppose we might have
been warned at times about such things, but I was never really conscious of a
safety lecture. Cady, the man that I spoke of who had helped us into graduate
school, had only one eye because of an explosion in a lecture demonstration he'd
been doing with von Ende in the freshman course. I think they were demonstrating
00:38:00the interface disappearing at the critical temperature in a sealed tube. As I
recall the story, the sealed tube had blown up during the lecture demonstration
and put his eye out. Nonetheless, there wasn't much done about academic
laboratory safety in those years.
BOHNING: You said these Minnesota hoods hadn't been hooked up. Did they have
other hoods in the labs that were?
RENFREW: I don't think they were using hoods in the freshman courses. I don't
recall that any of the Minnesota freshman laboratories had really functioning
hoods in them. There were hoods in the organic research laboratories, of course,
but we didn't have eye protection there either. There was no real safety program
at the University of Minnesota at that time to my best knowledge - or at the
University of Idaho.
BOHNING: How did you select your major problem for your Ph.D. thesis; there were
a number of papers on Raman spectra
00:39:00RENFREW: The summer before I went to Minnesota, a brilliant chap named H. P.
Robertson, who was married to the sister of Otto Turinsky, a chemistry
instructor at Idaho, was there translating Weyl's book on group theory
. Robertson was a mathematician of distinction who
later was at the Princeton Institute with Einstein and then went on to Caltech.
I think that he was head of mathematics there when he was killed in an
automobile accident. Robertson had been a student at the University of
Washington when George Glockler was there as a student, and he talked to me
about Glockler. By that time I'd decided that I wanted to be a physical chemist,
and so I went to Minnesota prepared to like George Glockler, which I did when I
met him. We had to go around and talk to all the faculty members in our chosen
00:40:00discipline, and we also had to visit the heads of each department; Lee I. Smith
in organic, [Izaak M.] Kolthoff in analytical, and so on. I'd expected to find
Kolthoff already a hundred years old way back then, based on his
accomplishments, but he really was quite young; he is still active. We also had
to visit the head of the chemical engineering department, Charlie Mann, when we
went around on our opening tour. Chemical engineering and chemistry at Minnesota
were combined at that time. When I met the head of chemical engineering I said,
"Well, you won't want to be spending time with me. I won't be doing anything in
engineering." He said, "Oh, sit down. I just want to find out what they're
teaching chemists these days." So, he began asking me embarrassing questions,
questions which in later life I felt I should ask my students. He asked me if I
knew the price of sulfuric acid. (I didn't). Then, "Here's a spill where we have
00:41:00to do a neutralization reaction, what's the cheapest way to do it," and so on.
Questions on chemical economics had never occurred to me before. This made an
impression [then, and I hope that such questions in later years at Idaho made our
students conscious of costs as an important part of professional chemistry.
This reminds me that at Idaho we ran a "professional seminar" for senior
chemistry majors, a one-semester, one-credit course that discussed how to obtain
a job and how to hold one plus more. As texts at various times we used such
books as Chemistry in the Economy
; Davies and
McCarthy: Introduction to Technological Economies
Bradbury and Dutton, Chemical Industry: Social and Economic Aspects
; and Billmeyer and Kelley, Entering Industry: A
Guide for Young Professionals
. Our students also
were encouraged to read Chemical and Engineering News regularly. They were
expected to know what chemicals were produced in the largest quantities, their
price levels, and the major chemical companies. We also gave some instruction on
the patent system.
I made good use of a paper by W. J. King of General Electric
, that had been distributed at Du Pont's Arlington
Laboratory. Billmeyer, who also worked at Arlington in my time, evidently made
use of this in the book cited above. This emphasized that most failures of
technical personnel resulted not from inadequate technical proficiencies but
from failures in personal relationships with bosses and fellow workers. King's
paper had the title "What Every Beginner Needs to Know at Once." I urged our
students to save the copies given to them and reread it when they started their
A key part of the course required students to prepare a 20- to 30-minute talk on
a technical subject with anonymous critical comments from class members. After
television cameras became available we put the talks on tape, and I went over
the criticisms with the speaker as we reviewed the tape. Harold Wittcoff of
General Mills and I later outlined a book to combine this material with an
economic discussion of the chemical industry. Publishers received favorable
comments from reviewers, but they held that there weren't enough courses of this
type offered by universities to insure adopting at the level required for
profitability. Wiley finally began negotiations with us but then discovered that
they had a contract with Fred Billmeyer to do such a book. Our interest goaded
Fred into action. We were told by other publishers that if the Billmeyer book
sold well, they then would be interested in ours. But Wiley never promoted the
book. Our university was among the few users of it.]
BOHNING: In your Ph.D. research; was it a new apparatus that you constructed to
make the measurements?
RENFREW: No. It essentially had been built. Actually, Fred Wall had done his
thesis on it. Fred did a much more high powered problem than I did. Mine
involved some improvements in the apparatus. Raman spectroscopy was new in this
country, and it took us a long time to get the spectra. Neon/mercury lamps were
00:42:00used for illumination. One of my studies involved liquid acetylene; I've
shuddered a little bit in later life about what I did with that. I wanted to
make two runs with pure liquid acetylene that I had manufactured, and I had to
keep it liquefied by pouring liquid air into a reservoir which chilled the air
drawn into the apparatus. I was thirty-six hours in the laboratory making those
runs with liquid acetylene. Friends brought me hamburgers from the White Castle.
Whilst feeling groggy I could easily have stuck my finger in the wrong place and
been electrocuted while I was doing that run. Also, the shock sensitivity of
liquid acetylene was ignored.
BOHNING: Anyone there at Minnesota that had a specific influence on you, outside
of your, let's say your research advisor?
RENFREW: Well, George Glockler had the greatest influence. And Lee Irvin Smith,
00:43:00who was head of organic chemistry was an important counselor. I had a good,
friendly relationship with Lee Irvin. Later on, he was responsible for my
returning to Minneapolis to join General Mills. They both had a strong
influence. My fellow graduate students also were important, especially Theodore
A. Geissman, who successfully combined culture and chemistry. He later became a
professor of organic chemistry at UCLA. I shared quarters for three years with
Norman H. Cromwell who became head of chemistry at Nebraska. And Stanley
Wawzonek, who later was head of chemistry at Iowa, was a close friend. There
were many talented students, including Stuart Harrison, who worked with me in
General Mills, J. J. Lingane (Harvard), Henry Richter (Du Pont and Colorado),
John Bachmann (Akron), Simon Wender (Arkansas), Cy Guss (Nevada-Reno), etc.; a
fine group, and I have kept in touch with many of them. Glockler's Nobel Prize
winner (Melvin Calvin) just preceded me, but I only barely met him.]
BOHNING: Now, as you are completing your work at Minnesota what were you
thinking about? It was 1938 when you finished?
RENFREW: Jobs weren't plentiful then. At one point, I had interviewed with
General Chemical (a division of Allied Chemical). The General Chemical man had
come around and was inviting students to come in and talk with him. I thought,
"Well, I'll just have an interview. Maybe I won't pass this Ph.D., I should find
out what the job opportunities are". So I signed up to talk to the General
Chemical visitor. I remember that faculty members told me that if I truly was
00:44:00desperate and thought I just had to have a job and General Chemical was my only
possibility, why they wouldn't complain. But if I had any choice, I shouldn't
take a job with General Chemical. They had developed a very bad name for hiring
people and then, if there was a slight depression in the Depression, they would
fire them. This was considered very bad manners in academic circles. But anyway,
since I held a Du Pont Fellowship, it was a foregone conclusion that if Du Pont
offered me a job I would take it. And they did offer me a job.
BOHNING: Did anybody come to the campus and interview you before that?
RENFREW: Yes. I was interviewed by the traveling Du Pont personnel man, and also
by Harold Paine, who was the laboratory director at the Arlington research
laboratory of the Plastics Department. He came through and interviewed me. [I was
invited then to visit Du Pont for in-depth interviewing. While in Wilmington I
made a call on Dr. J. Arthur Almquist, who was an executive in a Du Pont
division that wasn't interviewing me. He was an Idaho alum to whom Dr. von Ende
had pointed with pride. He gave me a friendly reception; later he was
transferred to the Plastics Department as Chemical Director, and in a real sense
he then was my boss. He was a leading prospect to become general manager of the
Polychemicals Department that was formed from the Plastics and Ammonia
Department soon after I left the company, but he developed a terminal illness
and returned to Arizona. When he died, he left a bequest for our use at Idaho in
encouraging undergraduate chemists and chemical engineers to plan for advanced
study. (He regarded his Ph.D from Berkeley as a major force in his own
professional success.) We set up the annual J. Arthur Almquist lecture that has
brought many distinguished leaders in chemistry to our campus: Clayton Callis,
Mary Good, Ellis Fields, Butch Hanford, Julie Prager, and Otto Glemser, for
example. Our students in the student affiliate chapters of ACS and AIChE are the hosts.]
00:45:00BOHNING: Well, I guess that leaves us with moving to Du Pont. What were the
conditions like in 1938? It was prior to the second World War, but things were
not looking that optimistic within Europe. But the Depression was winding down.
RENFREW: The Depression was still with us! But by the standards of the time, I
was quite prosperous. I was hired at $225 a month and that was a really good
salary in those days. Du Pont had been a good employer. There were many chemists
working in the research laboratory who earlier had been hired as sweepers or
dishwashers for a while. They were professional people who hadn't found anything
gainful to do. Du Pont would bring them in and let them do manual labor; then
later on, as business began to pick up a little, Du Pont would start giving them
00:46:00technical jobs. We were not at the height of prosperity, but we found
satisfaction in being there, and it was a wonderful experience for my wife and
for me. Arlington was just ten miles from Manhattan. On Saturday afternoons
until the war came on, we would go in and see a matinee on Broadway for $1.10;
my hearing then was such that, although we were at the back of the theater, I
could hear things all right. We really had a wonderful time in the eleven years
we were there.
[I had married Carol Campbell just after the Minnesota commencement. My bride had
graduated from the University of Idaho in economics during my last year there.
She was a campus leader and a superior student, and she went to Brown for
graduate work in economics the fall that I went to Minnesota. (She stayed only a
year but completed her thesis for the Masters degree during our early years in
Arlington.) She had returned to her home town (Rosalia, Washington) and worked
in the bank until our marriage.
We were engaged for three years, carrying on our romance by mail and in short
vacation-time visits. At Minnesota the marriage of chemistry graduate students
was not encouraged. In fact, Lee I. Smith strongly held that a serious student
would not get mixed up in such a diversion. And I really felt that the strain of
a graduate program was not compatible with the readjustments required by
marriage. Nowadays students have proved me wrong in some ways but not others --
there are a good many early divorces!
Carol worked for Du Pont during the war years, and when we came back to Idaho
she was a productive part-time worker in the University's developing computer
center. But she never aimed for a professional career. Rather she has been a
remarkably effective partner in our married life, devoting her talents to worthy
causes, including the social aspect of my professional career. She was
especially adept in campus activities, including work with students.]
BOHNING: What was your first assignment at Du Pont?
RENFREW: My first assignment in the Arlington laboratory involved, as I recall,
preparing a low-humidity box for the testing of plastics. So I had to do a
little glass-blowing, get some drying agents and a big box, and set up a
BOHNING: And that was at Arlington?
RENFREW: That was at Arlington. We were in the period when most of the leading
thermoplastics were coming to market. Du Pont was still, at that plant,
manufacturing cellulose nitrate plastics. Cellulose acetate was a new polymer
made by another division which we were compounding with plasticizers and were
selling as a molding powder. Polymethyl methacrylate was just coming along;
nylon was being studied as a potential paint brush monofilament and as a molding
material. We were setting up an operation for the continuous extrusion of
polyvinyl butyral for use as a safety glass interlayer. ICI had discovered
polyethylene; we had an exchange agreement with ICI and we began receiving
00:48:00samples of their polyethylene. I was involved with most of these polymers. We
also considered taking on a polystyrene research project. At the end of the war,
my boss at the time went over to Germany to get the German process on making
polystyrene, and we fiddled around with that for a while, but it was discarded
in favor of products with a better patent position.
BOHNING: Who was your supervisor?
RENFREW: My boss then was Dr. John Haught, but for most of my first years I
reported to Maurice Macht and later to Dr. Chester K. Rosenbaum - others too. Du
Pont didn't have a fixed structure. There always were changes in progress.
BOHNING: Can you tell me something about the Arlington works; Oh, I know. There
was something else I wanted to ask you first. What did you know about polymers
before you started working there?
RENFREW: I didn't know much, in fact, not much was known. I knew that there were
plastics, of course. When one of the students at Minnesota was taking his finals
00:49:00in chemical engineering Du Pont had sent around samples of polymethyl
methacrylate to faculty to generate interest. One member of the examining
committee had held up his sample of the plastic and asked this student, "Do you
know what this is?" The boy said, "Celluloid"; and the professor said, "That's
right." I knew more about polymers than that professor did.
BOHNING: When you started in the plastics department, did you take any
instruction anywhere? Did you ever go over to Brooklyn Polytechnic?
RENFREW: Oh, yes. During the war years. That was a really wonderful experience.
On Saturdays we could get out of work (we were on a six-day week because of the
00:50:00war), and go to Brooklyn Polytechnic where they had all-day seminars with such
people as Walter H. Stockmayer and Charles C. Price as the instructors. It was a
fine thing. And via night school, I took several short courses in chemical
engineering in Newark as part of the war Manpower Training Program conducted by
Princeton University. I also had a course there from Hugh S. Taylor in physical
chemistry, a couple of courses in chemical engineering, and a course from
[Eugene] Pacsu in monofilament chemistry, and so on. John Turkevich offered one
course. It was wonderful that we could then get this extra formal training.
BOHNING: Can you tell me something about what you remember of Brooklyn? What
were those Saturday seminars like? Were they well attended? A lot of people?
00:51:00RENFREW: Oh, yes. Lots of people came. And we really were trying to learn
something. It wasn't just to get out of regular work you know. Du Pont paid
transportation and bought lunches for their employees, which was quite a thing
for the time. And we'd stay there all day. Later there were Thursday night
sessions. The most interesting thing; this jumps the gun a couple of years here.
Chester Rosenbaum, who I then reported to, his family, and my wife and I were up
at Silver Bay, a YMCA resort on Lake George, on vacation when the first atom
bomb was dropped. We had known that this was in the offing, but hadn't known
anything about the timing. We returned to Arlington the next week and learned
about the chaos at the Thursday night session at Brooklyn Poly when the bomb
00:52:00dropped. Charlie Price was the instructor. I'm a little fuzzy on this, but the
atom bomb was dropped one Thursday when Charlie was trying to lecture. The next
week when I attended his lecture, this was VJ day; the big event, and chaos
reigned. Brooklyn was an extremely noisy place, so Charlie had give up on that
Thursday night lecture, too. Those of us from Arlington took the subway through
Times Square en route to the Hudson tube train to New Jersey. We stopped and
went upstairs for a look at the square. What a mob scene! That's one of the
polymer lectures I remember even if there wasn't much chemistry in it!
BOHNING: What were the facilities like at Arlington?
RENFREW: At Brooklyn Poly?
BOHNING: No. At Arlington.
RENFREW: Oh, Arlington. We had quite good laboratories; they were relatively
00:53:00new. The research was less sophisticated than it is now. We did a lot of taking
things off the shelf and pouring them into a pot to see what happened. There had
been a laboratory director just before I arrived who'd had the view that
chemists shouldn't have desks. If you gave them a desk, he held, they'd be
sitting down all the time, and he wanted people up working. He was gone when I
got there, but it still was a little hard to find a desk where one could work.
You would go into the library if you had to write up something. That gradually
changed. But we had good equipment; not up to modern times, but pretty good facilities.
BOHNING: Who were some of your coworkers?
00:54:00RENFREW: Oh, well, among the chemists... We kept adding them. One was Ernie
[Ernest E.] Lewis, who was on the Teflon paper with me. Carleton Sperati, who I
think won the history of chemistry award last year, was one of our young people.
And Jack Lontz who is identified as an inventor of distinction, worked in my
group. Bill [Wilbert L.] Gore, who was responsible later on for Gore-Tex, also
worked in my group. (His son was the inventor but the family company, headed by
Bill already was an extruder of Teflon and developed the commercial uses.)
BOHNING: Gore-Tex, is that it?
RENFREW: Yes. And goodness, I recall many able Du Ponters. I'm not sure which
ones specially will be of interest to you. We may soon go back to the Arlington
reunion. The people who were transferred from Arlington to Wilmington have an
annual affair at the Du Pont Country Club. The Arlington operations all are
00:55:00closed now; Du Pont doesn't have anything there. We all were about to be
transferred to Wilmington about the time I left to join General Mills. In fact,
that contributed to my decision to go back to Minneapolis. I'd known Minneapolis
and liked it, and I was never so keen on Wilmington. But the folk who originally
were in Arlington now get together every year. If we don't go this time, we will
try the next.
BOHNING: Does this group print any programs or have any historical information
about the Arlington group?
RENFREW: I don't know, we haven't yet been there. Ernie Lewis is going to be
chairman this next time. Again he's the fellow who was on this Teflon paper. He
hasn't sent us any formal program for the reunion.
BOHNING: Well, the reason I ask is that if something does come up, maybe you
would send me a copy.
00:56:00[END OF AUDIO FILE 1.2]
BOHNING: When did you start to work on Teflon?
00:57:00RENFREW: Well, most of the projects that we were working on during that period
were connected with the war effort. In fact almost all in some degree were
committed to victory -- but not with government funding.
BOHNING: Was that true even back in 1938 and 1939? Or did that develop only
RENFREW: We began to become defense oriented before 1941. I'd been working on
tooth reconstruction materials, early dental filling materials which grew out of
my acrylic denture project. That had potential peacetime applications, but we
began to get more and more defense oriented. At the time we began working on
Teflon, of course there had been the public announcement of what [Roy J.]
00:58:00Plunkett had found. Plunkett, when he opened the cylinder containing
tetrafluoroethylene and found the valve plugged, at that moment invented Teflon.
He did a few scouting experiments. I think the original patent suggested silver
nitrate as a catalyst
. Some examples were needed for
the patent; it was recognized that this would be an important case. Plunkett was
in Orchem, and development work was transferred to the Experimental Station.
There Butch [William E.] Hanford and his group, Bob [Robert M.] Joyce, John
Sauer, and Ken [Kenneth L.] Berry, and a number of others in Central Research
worked on the polymerization process and some applications. It was recognized
that Orchem's Jackson Laboratory, where Teflon had been discovered would do the
monomer synthesis, and the Plastics Department would do the scale-up of
polymerization and development. And so Teflon came to us at Arlington and we
began working along on the same lines that they were doing at the Experimental
Station. This leads into the story about my then boss, P. Willard Crane.
00:59:00He came to me one day and said, "We've been invited to go over and talk to
Professor [John R.] Dunning at Columbia." Willard was always one to play his
cards close to his chest so I don't know how much he knew in advance of what we
were going to hear. But I was quite popeyed by the conversation we had with
Dunning. J. R. Dunning was an enthusiastic and able physicist who got right to
the point when we went in to see him: he told us that there was a development
now coming on in this country and in Germany which would determine who would win
the war, that it was going to be extraordinarily important for us to be
participating at our maximum strength. He knew that we were making polytetra-
fluoroethylene (PTFE) at Arlington, and it was believed that this product was
going to be vital to this war project. There was soon going to be urgent demands
01:00:00for what we then called poly-F1114. He had a schedule for us to meet: we were to
have one week to complete our development work on the polymerization process; we
would have two weeks for the design of the plant; we would have one week for
plant construction, and then we were supposed to be producing
polytetrafluoroethylene at the rate (I think) of a million pounds a month! Now,
it may have been a million pounds a year, but I think it was a million pounds a
month! We never made that schedule. But we did move ahead on process development
into the pilot plant before the safety practices were in place.
BOHNING: What was Crane's response to Dunning's proposal?
RENFREW: Well, we both felt that this was a little unrealistic. I never really
knew whether Du Pont management knew about this in advance or whether this was
Dunning's first contact. Willard, of course, went up the line to tell management
what our conversation had been. We both speculated on what could require so much
01:01:00polymer. We really didn't think then of nuclear energy as being involved, but
... Several weeks later, I took some of our samples of polytetrafluoroethylene
over to Columbia. By that time Havermeyer Hall was known as the SAM
Laboratories. They had a sign-in procedure when we went in, and there were
security guards around. The fellow who had signed in ahead of me was A. O. Nier,
a physics professor from Minnesota. There had been a piece in the New York Times
some weeks earlier about Nier's finding that you could split the atom with the
release of energy. He was almost up with what the Germans had done. I had read
the news story, and I now deduced what we were involved in, but we didn't know
quite how we fitted into the picture.
It turned out, of course, that they were counting on PTFE to be the gasket
material for the gaseous diffusion process, that was to be used at Oak Ridge in
the gaseous separation of uranium isotopes. But it didn't turn out to be a
01:02:00really satisfactory gasket material; it would flow under pressure. Also, there
were enough impurities in the polymer the way we were making it then that there
were reactions with uranium hexafluoride. There were a number of things that
mitigated against Dunning's proposed use, but a lot of PTFE went into the war
effort. A lot of it was used later at Hanford in the plutonium process and
Willard Crane soon went. He was transferred there by Du Pont and was there
during the rest of the war years. I then moved into his position. I was head of
an engineering group that was doing the scale-up of polymerization. I had taken
a night-school course in Badger and McCabe
, and thus
became an engineer! It may have been a source of embarrassment to my chemical
engineering friends that I got into the American Institute of Chemical Engineers
01:03:00as a "senior member". They had such a classification then and I made that on the
strength of my short course and my associates.
BOHNING: You said that Dunning wanted to be making a million pounds a month. You
then were making the polymer in hundred-gram lots?
RENFREW: Fifty or a hundred grams. We had a small rocker tube and we did early
manufacture in that equipment.
BOHNING: Were you principally looking at catalysts, trying to find better catalysts?
RENFREW: Well, this was one of the needs. Actually, I can't remember the exact
schedule. I told you that one of my individual contributions, in a sense, was
the development of an initiator that was used later on for the manufacture of
most of Du Pont's polytetrafluoroethylene. We originally were using ammonium
persulfate, and were getting a granular polymer. It was later, I don't know how
01:04:00many months later, that we got into this work on alternative catalysts to
improve the properties of the product.
BOHNING: How many people were there working with you on this?
RENFREW: Oh, we had a group of, I suppose, ten or twelve young engineers on
various aspects of the process, plus some ancillary help. Most of our group was
involved in Teflon. Earlier, I spoke to you about the accidents that we had: the tragedies.
At that time we were running a pilot plant. We'd scaled the process up to a
two-hundred-gallon reactor and were making batch polymerizations. The monomer
would come from the Jackson Laboratory with an inhibitor, and we would have to
distill it to remove the inhibitor and then carry out the polymerization. We had
01:05:00a three-shift operation. Also, at Arlington we were molding the polymer by a
heat-sintering process that made blocks which
then could be shaved to produce tapes or produce gasket materials. As I probably
often have said, and which most people know, the pilot plant stage is where
processes are apt to run
into accidents. Even at best, the hazards are there because you're doing new
things with scaled-up quantities. And so we had our troubles. The first tragedy
involved the Organic Chemicals department where workers who had been purifying
monomer by distillation took still residues and tried to vent them up a hood in
the laboratory. They were poisoned by material that leaked out of the hood.
01:06:00Three of them died.
BOHNING: What material would that have been?
RENFREW: Oh, they were fluorine-containing chemicals not then identified. I
remember George Holbrook from the Jackson Laboratory came up to our place. We
had a Podbielniak still at the time that we used in purifying monomers. He
brought up some of this material, and we were trying to identify what it was.
George had been the supervisor of the people who were killed. Later on he was a
pillar in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. I remember his anguish.
Later on I could share it.
BOHNING: When you say that they died from inhalation, was it the fact that the
hoods were incapable of venting it properly, or was there too much at one time?
RENFREW: I don't know. We didn't know as much about hoods then as we do now.
01:07:00They apparently had run a tube from a cylinder of still residues over into the
hood and as I recall they had actually been venting for some hours. I don't
whether they had the sash down. But anyway, they were venting the still residues
from cylinders, and this evidently was not all going up the stack. Some hours
later the lab workers developed the severe respiratory problems that killed
them. (Venting toxic gases in a hood is now widely recognized as a bad practice.)
BOHNING: Was there anyone else in the room with them at the time?
RENFREW: I don't know. I wasn't down there. That was down at the Jackson
Laboratory, across the bay from Wilmington.
BOHNING: What was the response of Du Pont after that happened?
RENFREW: I wasn't as deeply involved in that accident. When we had ours, I
became impressed with the fact that the company regarded safety as an economic
necessity. They weren't just paternalistic, there were economic factors
01:08:00involved. They were not going to make the widows who were left wealthy. Of
course there were state laws as to what the compensation requirements were in
industrial accidents. I think the implication was that Du Pont would not really
exceed what they had to do, but in cases of hardship, they would then look after
people. This was the impression that I had.
Our accident was in the pilot plant stage. We were short-handed and were trying
to do too much. We had just two men on the graveyard shift. We had
around-the-clock operations. There were bigger shifts daytime, but from twelve
to eight, that particular shift involved only two men who had presumably less
responsibility and could do a lot of things. I had been in Wilmington all day,
had gotten home late. I lived near enough to the plant that I could walk to
work. At one-thirty in the morning I heard an explosion. A little while later
01:09:00the phone rang, and I was told that I should now call the wife of one of the
boys that was injured. She lived upstairs in the apartment where we lived. She
was pregnant. They had been teachers in a Sunday school class where I was the
superintendent. And I had to sit with her and the wife of the other young man at
the hospital the night these kids died. It was just before Thanksgiving, and the
parents of one boy that was killed, the one that I knew best, came from Kansas
and my wife and I looked after them. But we immediately had to start rebuilding
the plant. Also there was an immediate investigation to see whether sabotage was
involved; an important question. I don't know how we carried the load during the
redesign and immediate reconstruction of the plant -- with greater safeguards.
01:10:00BOHNING: What was the time frame of these accidents? When did the first one
occur down at Jackson Labs and then when was yours?
RENFREW: I don't know if I could reconstruct that. The one at Jackson Lab
happened first, but I can't recall the exact time.
RENFREW: For our plant we developed a remote control system where everything was
done behind barricades. Our safety precautions earlier depended upon keeping
monomer at low temperature. And the thing that had happened was that, every now
and then, one of the cylinders containing refined monomer, which was being kept
at low temperature prior to polymerization, would start plugging the valve with
polymer. Whenever this began to happen we would take the cylinder, chill it in
01:11:00dry ice and solvent, take the valve out, replacing it with a clear valve.
Ultimately it turned out that the two fellows that were killed on the night
shift had decided that they would change the valve on one of the cylinders that
they had decided was empty. But they didn't get it done, so they left it for the
next shift, but the next shift was too busy, so they didn't get it done. The
next shift didn't get to it either, too busy, and so when these people came back
on the twelve to eight, here was this cylinder sitting out that still had never
had anything done to it. They were in the course of taking the valve out when
the cylinder blew up. What had happened evidently was they had misread the
weight of the cylinder. According to the log book, they missed it by ten pounds.
They thought it was empty and they'd thrown it on the scale but then misread the
scale. It contained 10 pounds of refined monomer. On a twelve to eight shift, I
suppose human errors occur more frequently. It wasn't the kind of an event
anyone could defend very well as a safety expert. It was a dreadful business.
BOHNING: How old were these people?
01:12:00RENFREW: They were under thirty, both of them. One of them was a college-trained
engineer and the other one was a superior technician.
BOHNING: What was the frequency of incidents like this happening at Du Pont
RENFREW: Oh, they were rare. Du Pont was really a pioneer in laboratory and
plant safety. This is interesting. [Edward G.] Jefferson, the retired president
of Du Pont, gave a talk not long ago in which he attributed much of Du Pont's
economic success to the fact that they developed a safety program which was a
good program. Du Pont employees had all kinds of reasons to be safety conscious.
01:13:00There would be contests in which plants would compete for the maximum number of
man hours without an accident. This was posted outside the plants every day. And
boy, if a fellow had an accident, he was an unpopular character. If he'd smashed
his thumb and had to go to the hospital, he was going to be in disgrace, since
then we would not win a safety prize. The first nylon stockings my wife ever had
came as a safety prize. During this period the company offered such prizes for
all people working in a plant or a laboratory. We were a laboratory in a plant
so we had this factory atmosphere in addition to having our research program there.
BOHNING: In view of the fact that your accident at Arlington was essentially
human error, did the company take care of the families in any respect?
01:14:00RENFREW: Well, to the best of my knowledge they met the minimum requirements.
They had a life insurance policy, in addition to the minimum workman's
compensation requirement. We were told, sort of unofficially, that if the wives
and children became really troubled financially the Du Pont company would look
after them. I don't know whether that ever happened or not. It certainly was not
a case in which the families were compensated for the value of the lives of the
young people who were sacrificed.
BOHNING: Were you involved at all in any of the UF6 testing or other property
testing of the polymer? Or were you involved primarily in just the manufacturing?
RENFREW: We had to do some testing. At first, we would take most of our samples
over to the SAM laboratories and deal with the people there. But we soon did the
01:15:00tests ourselves. We received some of the first fluorine gas that was being
distributed in cylinders. One of the safety people in the Arlington plant nearly
had apoplexy one day because he was walking by one of our laboratory facilities.
Originally they had been nitration cells and had been rebuilt as small
laboratories. This fellow came walking by one of them where there was a copper
tube sticking out the window, and he happened to look just as a three-foot area
of grass went up in smoke. He came in, wild-eyed, to find out what the hell was
going on in this laboratory. We were venting a cylinder that contained fluorine
which we had been using to test the inertness of samples of PTFE made under
different conditions to see how they behaved in fluorine.
01:16:00BOHNING: How long did your work in Teflon continue? The ACS paper and that IEC
paper were after the war was over. Is that correct?
RENFREW: Well, I stayed with it until after the war. Later I was involved in
product development. The paper was given in 1946, as I recall. The paper was
published in September of 1946, and it was the spring of 1946 when I gave that
in Atlantic City at a national ACS meeting. (I
left Du Pont in 1949.) I first had been head of the so-called process
development group, and then I became head of the product development group. So I
worked on evaluations of polytetrafluoroethylene and other plastics in various
commercial applications. We, of course, had other products that were coming
01:17:00along. Polymethyl methacrylate, polyethylene, nylon moldings, various
experimental polymers, etc., were evaluated for potential applications.
BOHNING: What was the impetus behind giving out Teflon information at an ACS meeting?
RENFREW: Du Pont, of course, was interested in marketing the product
commercially, but the price was considered ridiculous. It was fifty-five dollars
a pound at the time. But it was an extraordinary product that was obviously
going to have some unusual uses in the peacetime economy. We had to start
developing markets for it, Du Pont wanted to increase commercial interest. An
extraordinary day of my life was the day that I gave the paper. The Du Pont
advertising and marketing people got me out of bed that morning for last minute
01:18:00counsel. One of the men came up with something that I incorporated in the paper
as a real nice touch. He offered the statement; "If anybody at this American
Chemical Society meeting has come up with a universal solvent, we have the
container for it."
But anyway, I was involved in a number of things all morning. I didn't get any
breakfast, I didn't get any lunch. I gave the paper shortly after lunch; it was
the first paper after lunch. We had a tremendous crowd. People stayed around
afterwards asking me questions, and so I didn't get anything to eat. I went to
the ACS News Service cocktail party where Glenn Seaborg was really the lion of
the hour, but the Teflon paper had attracted quite a bit of interest. When I
went to this social hour I was hungry and thirsty. I drank far too many
01:19:00Manhattans and I became "the worst one" in Atlantic City. I finally got to
Charlie [Charles L.] Parsons' farewell banquet where I wanted to see my major
professor, George Glockler. When I finally got there with a bunch of barfly
newsmen, George Glockler took one look at us, got up, and left the meeting. It
was a long time before I really was on good terms with him again!
BOHNING: You said he wasn't very strict...
RENFREW: Well, Glockler was academically liberal, but a bottle of beer on a warm
summer afternoon was his idea of drinking. Really, I was in a disreputable
condition; I don't know how I was navigating.
But I want to say one other thing. Strangely enough, although that Teflon paper
attracted a great deal of interest, the next paper on the program was probably
of much more scientific importance
. Cal [Calvin E.]
Schildknecht gave the paper. Do you know Cal Schildknecht?
BOHNING: I know the name.
01:20:00RENFREW: In his paper he discussed for the first time the possibility that you
might have isomers formed in polymerization. In a way, this preceded [Giulio]
Natta and [Karl] Ziegler who were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1963. Cal didn't
have it tied down; all he had were these suspicions. Depending on how he
polymerized isobutylene, I think it was isobutylene, he was getting differences
in properties. And so he suspected that there must be isomeric differences that
were involved. I was listening to it with one ear while people were asking me
questions, and I thought poor Cal had flipped his lid. This was an
impossibility! Nobody was really paying much attention to him. It must have been
a discouraging thing for him because here he had one of the important papers at
the meeting and it was largely ignored.
BOHNING: Well, I suppose...
RENFREW: He had been a worker at the Du Pont Arlington laboratory earlier, had
left, and had gone to General Aniline and Film where Butch Hanford had become
01:21:00BOHNING: Did he get many questions afterwards or was it just skepticism?
RENFREW: I don't think too much attention, there was just skepticism. I don't
recall that he got many questions at all. He later wrote good books on
polymerization. He was of German extraction and was a really rigid character, a
perfectionist; not a salesman, but he had an important contribution which needed
more selling then. He became the head of chemistry later on at Gettysburg
College, and he ran a tight ship there. I don't know that you've had contacts
BOHNING: That may be where I know the name. From Gettysburg. Was there a link
between Du Pont announcing Teflon and its properties to the world and sales?
RENFREW: Oh, yes. It was basically a sales thing. Actually Bob Joyce and Butch
Hanford and somebody else prepared a paper for the Journal of the American
01:22:00Chemical Society which was more of a scientific publication
. But I was handed the job of giving the presentation
at the American Chemical Society meeting which was the first official public
disclosure. Later on when the publications appeared, it's my recollection that
Hanford and Joyce came out a month ahead of our Industrial Engineering and
Perhaps of interest is this: seven years after I left Du Pont I received an "A
bonus" for unusual contributions because of my part in the Teflon development.
The company had no obligation for this. I have never heard of another company
doing such a thing, and I don't know how widely Du Pont had distributed such
awards to ex-employees.
BOHNING: Now, you left Du Pont in 1949. You had mentioned earlier there were
three major advances. I'm not sure if the other two took place at Du Pont or
after you left.
RENFREW: Well, there was another at Du Pont. The photo-polymerization work took
place at Du Pont. We were trying to make very large castings of
01:23:00methylmethacrylate polymer which would be used in Schmidt lenses that the Air
Force presumably needed for photographic inspection by airplanes flying over
battle areas. These had to be optically perfect, and it was very difficult to
get such large castings. If you tried to make them out of molding material there
was enough adsorption on the surface of granules that these introduced
aberrations. We needed "perfect" castings. Well, when you are trying to cast
anything this big from monomer/polymer syrups heat generated in the middle of
the casting leads to bubbles, a serious defect. So we decided to do some
photopolymerization studies to see if we could handle the polymerization on a
longer term basis without having so much heat at the critical period.
01:24:00There had been discoveries at the Experimental Station that acyloins
[RCOCH(OH)R] were good photocatalysts, and I read the patent
. We tried acyloins and they didn't solve the
problem, particularly since there tended to be an obnoxious yellow color with
the acyloins. Agre, that inventor, hadn't tried acyloin ethers. So I started
synthesizing some ethers of acyloins to see if they would improve on what the
acyloins were able to do. I made the ethyl ether of an aromatic acyloin, and
this was a tremendous photo-polymerization catalyst. It really was
extraordinary. But it didn't solve the problem on which I was working. There
still were bubbles and some color formation. We patented it but weren't able to
do anything else with it in wartime, although I think I included it later in a
patent application on polymerizable dental fillings
01:25:00had a dental filling inserted which used the photoinitiator in the filling
material. It lasted a long time, but polymethyl methacrylate isn't an ideal
filling; there is too much water pickup and swelling. The initiator later was
used by Du Pont's Central Research Department in developing photoprinting
processes that became commercially important.
I had a personal triumph of sorts in this project; we had an assistant director
of research named Robert E. Burk, who was a kind of a bull in a china shop. He'd
come from Western Reserve University to Du Pont and was a very bright man. He'd
been a Rhodes scholar, and modesty was not one of his virtues.
01:26:00[END OF AUDIO FILE 1.3]
RENFREW: Bob was really an aggravation. But I reported to him and also to
another assistant director of research, George Graves, and they didn't get along
one damn bit. Graves told me with much feeling, "If I did what Burk wanted, he
(George) would get my ass, that I was not to do what Burk wanted." "Burk", he
said, "was going to get no place in the Du Pont Company and we should not pay
attention to him." George proved to be right, but the conflict didn't make my
job easy. Burk went to England on a company mission after the war, and when he
came back, he was very high on what the British were able to do. He wanted to
know why here we couldn't do these things the British could. At one point he
01:27:00told how they'd developed this extraordinary photo-polymerization catalyst at
the ICI laboratories. It was a wonderful scientific development, and how come
that over here we couldn't do things like that. Why could they do it in England?
And I could say, "Well, they read our reports. I have a patent on that." That
was one of life's triumphs.
[I might offer additional comments on George Graves. I liked him as a person,
even though he was the only boss who ever made me feel consistently that I was
doing less than I should. He had a reputation for speaking bluntly but was
highly regarded in the company for his ability to push projects successfully. He
was moved around among divisions of the company in various administrative
assignments. Once when I was in Wilmington on behalf of General Mills' search
for polymer films of improved toughness at low temperature for use in their high
altitude balloons, my meeting with the Du Pont people in the Nemours Building
finished up early, and I said that I would drop in on George, who was located on
the next floor.
When I found him he was chewing up a secretary. Crawford Greenewalt had just
been elevated to higher office in the hierarchy, and as an old friend from
earlier times, George had dictated a letter of congratulations. The secretary
had typed the salutation as Dear "Greenie" and George didn't like the use of
When he simmered down we had a friendly visit that ended in my embarrassment.
Among other things, we talked about one of the sons of a high official in the
company. George held that he was a phony who always arranged to have himself
paged at conferences, concerts and other events. Shortly afterwards the
telephone bell sounded. It was Ralph Manley, my boss in General Mills. The call
had been transferred to George's office as my last known location. Ralph really
didn't have much to say, and I never could fathom why he called. George,
however, with a wicked grin, obviously was concluding that I had arranged this
to demonstrate my new importance.
The mention of balloons prompts another diversion. General Mills had a division
largely concerned with military developments. Among them was the construction
and flying of large balloons that could serve in spying over enemy territory
(some lower flying versions were tested for getting personnel behind enemy lines
and for escape. The balloons were silent and not detected by radar). There were
no airplanes then capable of flying at 80,000 feet.
As a plastics man I was drafted for consulting services. A major problem
involved the embrittlement of polyethylene when the balloons went through the
minimum temperature zone at around 30,000 feet. This quite often broke up the
balloon with the loss costly instrument packages and a danger to any citizens on
the ground who might be on the receiving end of the 1000lb load. As a loyal Du
Ponter I, of course, recommended Du Pont polyethylene. But we developed a low
temperature brittleness test, and I was shocked to find that Du Pont film
performed less well than the competitive product from Union Carbide.
At the time we were purchasing very large quantities of polyethylene, and our
work encouraged some important studies by Du Pont (and others) searching for the
causes of differences in low temperature properties of various polyethylenes. I
was later told that our General Mills test was adopted by Du Pont as a way for
measuring toughness at low temperatures.]
But, to resume, Du Pont at the Experimental Station soon was starting major work
on photopolymerization. A fellow named Plambeck had been working on this, and he
picked up my ethyl ether of benzoin as a super initiator. Plambeck later on won
the Carothers Prize. As part of his lecture, he did tell how the
photopolymerization was advanced by the discovery of this "catalyst" that I'd
been responsible for. Blaine McKusick of Du Pont, who is a force for good in our
01:28:00ACS safety activities, wrote to tell me that Plambeck had mentioned this in the
course of his Carothers lecture. I hadn't kept up on this and I wrote to
Plambeck to see what was going on. He was then retired, but in sending me his
Carothers paper he wrote, "I tried to emphasize that the image-forming
polymerization process developed was a culmination of work and observations of
many Du Pont chemists over a period of years. Your early work on benzoin methyl
ether as a photoinitiator was particularly important at a critical state in
. This got work started
outside of the Experimental Station, and, of course, it ultimately became a very
large commercial business. I don`t know that Du Pont ever made any money out of
my invention, because I think before the business became really big, the patent
had probably run out.
BOHNING: Is that the patent where your name was the only name on it because the
lawyers felt it was...
01:29:00RENFREW: No. No, that was another Du Pont initiator patent. The
photopolymerization patent clearly was mine, but the other case involving the
initiator for the polymerization of tetrafluoroethylene was fuzzier.
BOHNING: Could you say something about it?
RENFREW: As I said earlier, we were looking for additional ways to polymerize
tetrafluoroethylene. We were trying to overcome the product virtues that were
liabilities in fabrication. We wanted a product that would mold easily. I was
responsible for the group that was doing the polymerization studies. I assigned
the preparation of this peroxide of succinic acid and its use as an initiator of
polymerization for tetrafluoroethylene. When the people who carried out the
polymerization opened the reaction bomb, the polymer was an emulsion, more
accurately, a suspensoid. It was at a rather low solids concentration, five or
01:30:00six percent, but it was in a suspensoid stage as a colloidal dispersion which
would eventually settle out but which could be redispersed. But there is the
question: if Plunkett could get a patent for opening a cylinder and finding the
first polymer, why shouldn't the guy get the patent who opened the bomb and
found the suspensoid. But it was decided by the Du Pont lawyers that I had
assigned the experiment and then, when the product was brought in, I had
recognized its importance, so I was the inventor
BOHNING: You say they felt that having more than one name on the patent at that
RENFREW: At that time it was felt that the "flash of genius concept" was what
governed patents, and it was kind of embarrassing to have two people on a
01:31:00patent. If you had a number of people involved, it lessened the chance of
getting a patent. I think that was part of the philosophy of the time. Several
of our people were there when the reactor containing the suspensoid was opened.
They all couldn't be inventors.
BOHNING: When or why did you decide to leave Du Pont?
RENFREW: Well, we were about to be moved to Wilmington. I received a call from
Lee I. Smith, of the University of Minnesota who'd been advising James Ford Bell
at General Mills. Lee asked if I would come out and talk to them about taking a
job with General Mills. My psyche had had some dents put in it by that explosion
of tetrafluoroethylene, and I was not too happy about going to Wilmington. I'd
01:32:00liked Minneapolis when I was there as a student, and General Mills offered a
good opportunity. I had great respect for Du Pont, and it was a long time before
I ever ran into an alumnus of Du Pont who didn't speak well of the company. But
it was a period when we felt moving to Minneapolis would be better [for us than
staying with the company.
James Ford Bell, who had played the key part in founding General Mills by
bringing several milling companies together, was a truly remarkable man. He had
completed an undergraduate degree in chemistry, at Yale as I recall, and never
lost interest in science though his genius was in business management.
He had served as president of the company and as chairman of the Board. In my
time he was still a director, and he headed the committee on Finance and
Research. It was a one-man committee as he didn't believe that large committees
accomplished much. It was his view that business had to follow where research
led, not vice versa. And whenever we had budget discussions he always was
concerned lest we put too much effort into development work and not enough into
basic research. He also served on the boards of the Eastman Kodak and Merck, and
he loved to take publications from our research laboratory to show to their
Also he was public spirited, an early environmentalist and a Regent of the
University of Minnesota. I once accompanied the General Mills directors to a
meeting in Oklahoma, where I talked about chemical projects. On the way Mr. Bell
frequently was calling the Minnesota legislature (the legislature was then in
session) promoting an expanded budget for the University. At a welcoming dinner
in Oklahoma City, hosted by their Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Bell was asked to
offer a response. His theme was this: "You have been taking a lot of wealth out
of the ground. What are you putting back?" They don't make tycoons like that anymore.]
BOHNING: I believe you said that you had one other major area that you wanted to
discuss as part of what you did at General Mills.
RENFREW: Well, the contribution at General Mills that I think deserves
recognition involved the use of a reactive polyamide resin as a curing agent for
epoxy resins. I had attended a meeting of ASTM [American Society for Testing &
Materials], in which there was great interest in the so-called potting compounds
01:33:00for insulation. You know, you'd take these casting materials, put electrical
components into a mold, pour in the liquid reagents, and "cure" them. This was
an important development. Epoxy compounds were vital to the argument, but the
kinds of curing agents tended to be volatile. People also tended to become
sensitized to them, so there was a toxicity problem, and the industry was
looking for alternatives.
It occurred to me on the way back from the meeting that we were making a
reactive polyamide in General Mills which might well be superior curing agent
and component. This involved the polymer acids (made from polymerizing vegetable
oils) and ethylene diamine, forming a polyamide. We also had some made with
01:34:00diethylene triamine, and I thought these would have unreacted amino groups in
which the amino hydrogens could act as curing agents. I asked Harold Wittcoff,
who was in my group, to carry out some experiments with this. Harold did so and
it gave rapid curing and a product of unusual properties. Harold was a very
enterprising, bright young man. He recalled that he had tried our conventional
polyamides earlier in combination with epoxies. The results then weren't
promising but when he went back after some months, the samples had polymerized.
Our patent man thought it would be a real good idea to go back to the initial
experiment since that gave us an earlier date. So Harold and I became
. Harold kind of made his fortune out of
01:35:00this. He stayed with General Mills and our invention became very important
commercially. The chief uses of the epoxy/polyamide compositions were in
protective coatings where their virtues of toughness and corrosion resistance
counter balanced high cost and difficulties in application. They required a
two-can system. But among the publicized uses was under-water painting by deep
sea divers for the protection of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Aircraft also
were painted with epoxy/polyamide. The epoxy/polyamide system was ranked by
Howard Gerhart of PPG as one of the important inventions in the development of
protective coatings. He called it the "technical milestone event of 1953" in an
historical review in the Journal of Paint Technology
BOHNING: I believe you said this was the one where they did several million
dollars royalty business only in the last few years of the patent?
RENFREW: Yes. Originally it had been felt that there was no point in going
around telling the customer that they had to take out a license from us to use
our reactive polyamides, because we were the only manufacturers. For quite a
while merchandising did not call for royalties for the patents, but a woman who
had sales rights in England began selling the polyamide over there. According to
the story that Harold told me later, she insisted that if she was going to make
money out of this in England it would involve collecting royalties on the
01:36:00British patent and we had to do the same over here in order to make her case
legitimate. General Mills then began collecting royalties in addition to what
they were making out of selling the polyamide. Harold said they made three or
four million dollars out of the licensing alone before the patent expired.
BOHNING: And you were at General Mills for about five years. And then you moved
RENFREW: Yes. Spencer Kellogg and Sons, Inc.
BOHNING: What was responsible for that move? Were you still doing mainly polymer
work at General Mills?
RENFREW: Well, not just polymers. We had all kinds of things under
investigation. Polymers were part of it, but not necessarily even the major
01:37:00part. My move to Buffalo: it was an unwise move. When I was with Du Pont I had
bosses who were well informed. When our research supervisors took home
briefcases at night with reports they read them. When I got to General Mills, I
was shocked to discover that the vice president for research wanted only a
three-sentence progress report once a month on each research project. Later on,
when I got to Spencer Kellogg, I found that I couldn't even get the management
to read the three sentences!
But this position was offered. One of these flesh peddlers came around, a very
personable fellow. He offered a chance for me, not to be the director of
chemical research, but to be the director of all research. I was director of
chemical research and development at that time at General Mills, primarily a
food company. But I could be the director of research and development if I went
01:38:00to Spencer Kellogg. It was largely a family-held firm, though stock traded on
the Big Board. It had been a very honorable firm but it was in oil seed
processing, and making little in the way of profits. The current head of the
company, a grandson of the founder, was determined that he was going to
modernize things. So he had hired this bright fellow who had talked to me, and
we were the reform movement in the company. Well, it turned out that the bulk of
the people there felt if the price of linseed oil would only go up, they
wouldn't have to put up with all this new stuff. So, although we built a new
research laboratory and we had some new products coming along that were really
promising, it was an extremely frustrating business. Eventually Howard Kellogg,
the president, concluded that I was more of a nuisance than an asset, and I was
01:39:00being encouraged to move. In a year or two the company was bought by Textron,
who sold off obsolete properties and fired the dead wood. They kept our research
lab and new product lines and it became a small but profitable operation.
Just about this time, the headship of physical science opened up at the
University of Idaho. I wouldn't have known about it except for Gordon Harris,
who was head of chemistry at the University of Buffalo. Idaho had sent out
letters asking for nominees, and Gordon Harris turned in my name. When I
received inquiries, I knew what I wanted to do. I'd always thought being head of
chemistry at the University of Idaho would be the ideal job. I was in Fargo
where I had been offered a professorship in coating technology at North Dakota
State when the offer came by telephone from Idaho. My choice was predetermined.
I went back as the head of the physical science division, administratively
responsible for physics and chemistry. Then later on we split up the departments
when we began to do better. Physics was at an extremely low ebb when I got
there. I had hoped that I could start resuming some polymer research. It would
have been difficult at best because, normally, when people move like this, they
01:40:00take young people with them who've learned the art and can go in and teach
others to get the program going. Well, I didn't have anybody like that. Besides
I was considered a half-time teacher. I was administratively responsible for
physics and chemistry, and I taught six hours a semester, full-time in summers.
We had an unbelievable situation in physics. It was in the post-Sputnik era, and
physicists were hard to hire. We had one fellow teaching upper division physics
when I got there who later on was a janitor on the campus. It wasn't strictly
technical incompetence that handicapped him but he was emotionally incapable of
really facing a class. He was assigned to both junior and senior courses in
physics. We had other situations which were equally bad, and so I spent a great
01:41:00deal of my early time there trying to hire physicists. I learned the names of
the children of many of the graduating physicists from leading institutions in
the country! Physics gradually built up, and eventually we split the
departments. I became head of chemistry then, and I retired ten or eleven years ago.
BOHNING: How did you feel teaching after all those years?
RENFREW: Well, I found it quite a strain. I'd wanted to teach. Actually, for one
period at Du Pont, I taught a course for the Essex County Vocational School
System in an apprentice training program that they had at our plant. I had
enjoyed that very much, and I really felt I had skills as a teacher, but until I
gave up administration, I always had to put my teaching in second place. There
were always administrative assignments that absolutely required attention. It
01:42:00wasn't until I gave up the department chairmanship, which I did for the last few
years there, that I really got a chance to teach the way I wanted to. But I had
a lot of fun teaching in those last years.
BOHNING: What areas were you teaching?
RENFREW: Freshman chemistry primarily, although I ran a seminar course for
seniors trying to fit them to go out into the world; I usually taught that.
Sometimes I taught science courses for non-scientists. When I first went back to
the University, we were getting our Ph.D. program started. The university wasn't
qualified either with equipment or personnel to do it, but they'd started the
program. I had to teach whatever was left over. Once I taught a graduate course
in molecular spectra. Now that was really quite a chore, I'll tell you! I was
more than 20 years away from my Ph.D. I taught courses in polymer chemistry for
several years; we had polymer courses at that time which later were taken over
by chemical engineering.
01:43:00BOHNING: I guess it was when you went back to Idaho that you became very vocal
in chemical safety. Is that correct?
RENFREW: Well, yes. You know, universities hadn't caught up with the
improvements that had been made in safety practices, and I was shocked by what I
remembered from my own university days at Minnesota. When I came back to Idaho I
was determined we were going to do better. That started me. Then later on, when
I was with the Advisory Council on College Chemistry, that was the NSF-funded
program set up at Stanford, I felt that this was a chance to do more on academic
safety. So I kept thumping this theme while I was on the AC3 staff. Tom [William
T.] Lippincott, who had been one of the directors of the Advisory Council for
College Chemistry later replaced Bill Kieffer as editor for the Journal of
01:44:00Chemical Education. He asked me to edit the safety column and I started doing
that. That led into activities in the Chemical Health and Safety Division when
it subsequently was formed.
BOHNING: I don't recall the history of the division. Is it a young division? Was
it founded recently or has it been around for some time?
RENFREW: It was founded quite recently. I can't remember exactly the year. I
became the fifth chairman, as I recall, in the historical sequence.
BOHNING: Were you instrumental in its organization?
RENFREW: I was a charter member, but I wasn't the leading spirit. I was more
interested in the ACS safety committee. Actually I was on the first continuing
safety committee in ACS. A Du Pont alumnus named Livingston, Bert [Herbert K.]
Livingston, who had gone to Wayne State University, became the first continuing
01:45:00head of the ACS safety committee. The committee had been set up by the Board of
Directors and one of the directors had briefly served as the head, but Bert
Livingston soon took over. He had known of me as a Du Pont employee, and he
asked me to serve on this committee. Several times later on I served on the
committee, and the activities of the committee later led to the formation of the
division. I wasn't as enthusiastic as some of the instigators since I felt that
as we had a safety committee in the ACS that needed more attention, we shouldn't
dilute our efforts by forming a division. [Safety activities in ACS long were
regarded as potential trouble by some corporate managers who were influential in
the Society. Hence for a long time this contributed to the ineffectiveness of
There had been a hassle in ACS "management" over the Safety Committee response
to the vinyl chloride crisis early in the sixties. When it was found that
workers who had been working with vinyl chloride were developing a specific and
characteristic form of cancer (angiosarcoma), we members of the Safety Committee
were called to Washington for an emergency meeting by Stephen Quigley, then on
the ACS staff. We came up with a guideline statement for the protection of
workers that later proved to be quite reasonable, but producers of polyvinyl
chloride held that the recommendations would put them out of business. At the
following ACS council meeting, I happened to sit next to Jim D'Ianni of Goodyear
(he later became president of ACS) who was still livid.
Howard Fawcett, who was chairman of the Safety Committee at the time, was
employed by the National Academy of Sciences heading a group activity on
hazardous materials. His job there quite promptly was "eliminated." He has held
that the termination resulted from pressure applied by industrial sponsors, who
didn't like the ACS vinyl chloride action. For some years the Safety Committee
then had a "temporary" status in the ACS structure. Only recently (1988) did it
become a Board/ Council Committee with permanent standing.]
BOHNING: What kind of impact do you think your column in Journal of Chemical
Education has had in promoting laboratory safety?
RENFREW: I don't know. I sometimes feel nobody reads it. I get few complaints
and fewer commendations about the columns that we've carried. Once in a while
01:46:00somebody comes along and says that it has been an asset to them. I get quite a
few calls from people who have safety questions and I try to be helpful; I
collect literature for them and refer them to "experts". I've been asked to
participate in some of the hot legal cases. I've tended to ignore them. I don't
think fast enough on my feet. If you're going to be a qualified expert, you must
have answers right now. So, even if I'm inclined to be helpful in a case, I
don't want to get into it as an expert witness.
BOHNING: Did you appear as an expert witness earlier in your career?
RENFREW: I had two experiences in Du Pont. Once where I was involved in a family
row in Brooklyn between a dentist and his supplier of denture materials, who
turned out to be his brother-in-law! I had to be an expert witness in this case.
But I didn't really get a chance to demonstrate my expertise, the lawyer for the
shop man asked me to pick out a "Lucitone" denture in a group he had brought to
the hearing. I was quite sure that I could do this, but a Du Pont lawyer in the
courtroom was shaking his head in warning. We had no assurances that even if I
picked the right one my selection would be confirmed. Hence, I had to decline
01:47:00the opportunity to distinguish myself. Later, Du Pont and Rohm & Haas were
accused by the government in an antitrust suit. The government brought
price-fixing charges against them in connection with denture materials, and
early in the trial I had to be there for calling as an expert witness. I was
extremely reluctant to get into this because I felt Du Pont was guilty as shucks
and that all I could say would be embarrassing to my employer. It turned out
that I got to go to the opening of the trial and was tremendously impressed with
the battery of legal talent that Du Pont and Rohm & Haas had hired. The leading
trial lawyers in the country were there -- individual counsels for the people
who were involved in the suit, and then the Du Pont and Rohm & Haas corporations
01:48:00had their own battery of lawyers. There was an inept government attorney who was
fighting them; and I thought that, if I were on the jury in this case, I would
simply assume that that fellow had a better case than he was able to present and
that the opposition was overwhelming him. But Du Pont and Rohm & Haas won the
suit. The government prosecutor, who became a New Jersey politician, later on
was indicted for his own peccadillos.
There were some interesting things in the trial. Old Dr. Haas was somewhat in
his dotage. At one point the prosecution brought out the fact that the head of
the Du Pont Division involved had called Haas and said, "I'm calling you rather
than writing a letter because I don't want these damn government attorneys to
get a hold of this." Dr. Haas dutifully wrote this preamble down as a memo in
01:49:00his file! But anyway, Du Pont and Rohm & Haas won without my damaging participation.
BOHNING: Well, we're running toward four thirty and both of us have places to be
at five. And I think what I'm going to do is stop at this point.
RENFREW: I've told you some things that chemists don't need to know!
BOHNING: I really appreciate this delightful two hours and I thank you for your time.
01:50:00[END OF AUDIO FILE 1.4]
[END OF INTERVIEW]