Oral history interview with James R. Fair

Oral history interview with James R. Fair

  • 1992-Feb-19

This interview with James R. Fair begins with a discussion of Fair's childhood in the Midwest, highlighting high-school experiences in Little Rock, Arkansas, and early interests in science. Fair attended The Citadel as a chemistry major for two years before transferring to Georgia Institute of Technology, where he studied chemical engineering. He discusses general and chemical engineering programs at Georgia Tech, early interest in unit operations, and effects of World War II on studies and career options. In 1942, he began work with Monsanto Chemical Company, where he advanced through several positions, focusing on work with TNT nitration process, ethylene and styrene, and set-up of a synthetic rubber plant. Fair discusses early involvement with the AIChE in South Texas, Monsanto's post-war entry into petrochemical production based on acetylene and ethylene, and work on an ethylene plant joint venture with Socony Vacuum Oil Company.

In April 1947, Fair witnessed the explosion of the Grandcamp and Monsanto's Texas City polystyrene facility, which killed numerous employees and others and led Monsanto to rebuild and center its petrochemical ventures in Texas City. Fair contributed to redesigning and rebuilding the plant, heading process design of ethylene before taking academic leave to pursue coursework in reactions, separations, thermodynamics, and mathematics at the University of Michigan. He returned to Monsanto and was again involved in ethylene- and acetylene-based work. In 1952, he entered a Ph.D. program at The University of Texas, working with Howard Rase on catalysis and reaction engineering and upon completion accepting a basic research position at Shell Development in Southern California. In 1956, Fair returned to Monsanto to start an engineering research program, doing basic research in chemical engineering and serving as company consultant for ethylene and hydrocarbon pyrolysis. He traces Monsanto's ventures in petrochemicals through the fifties and early sixties to the formation of a corporate engineering department.

From 1964 to 1979, Fair headed corporate Monsanto's technology function and increased involvement with academia, particularly Washington University. In 1979, he took early retirement and accepted an engineering chair at The University of Texas, where he was well received by faculty and students. Throughout the second half of the interview, Fair emphasizes changes in chemical engineering curricula and need for industry/academia collaborations in research and funding. He discusses research collaborations, publications, and efforts to develop and license computer programs for process simulation/computer-aided design. The interview closes with discussion of student research and careers, involvement in the AIChE, consulting activities, and family.

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  • 70 pages
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Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
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  • Science History Institute
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  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.

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Interviewee biographical information

Born
  • October 14, 1920
  • Charleston, Missouri, United States
Died
  • October 11, 2010
  • Travis County, Texas, United States

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1940 The Citadel
1942 Georgia Institute of Technology BS Chemical Engineering
1949 University of Michigan MSE Chemical Engineering
1955 University of Texas at Austin PhD Chemical Engineering

Professional Experience

Monsanto Chemical Company

  • 1942 to 1943 Junior Engineer
  • 1943 to 1945 Technical Service Engineer
  • 1945 to 1947 Development Specialist
  • 1947 to 1950 Process Engineer
  • 1950 to 1952 Research Section Leader
  • 1956 to 1961 Research Section Leader
  • 1961 to 1963 Development Manager
  • 1963 to 1968 Engineering Manager, Corporate Engineering Department
  • 1968 to 1969 Manager, Engineering Technology
  • 1969 to 1979 Director of Corporate Technology

Shell Development Company

  • 1954 to 1956 Process Engineer

Washington University (Saint Louis, Mo.)

  • 1964 to 1979 Affiliate Professor of Chemical Engineering

University of Texas at Austin

  • 1979 to 1985 Ernest and Virginia Cockrell Chair in Engineering
  • 1983 to 1996 Head, Separations Research Program
  • 1985 to 1992 John J. McKetta Centennial Energy Chair in Engineering

Honors

Year(s) Award
1965 to 1967 Elected Director and Member of Council, AIChE
1968 Personal Achievement Award, Chemical Engineering Magazine
1971 Elected to Fellow Grade of Membership, AIChE
1973 William H. Walker Award, AIChE
1974 Elected to National Academy of Engineering
1975 Chemical Engineering Practice Award, AIChE
1975 Andre Wilkins Award, Tulsa AIChE Section
1976 Founders Award, AIChE
1976 Distinguished Engineering Graduate, The University of Texas at Austin
1977 DSc, Washington University, St. Louis, MO
1979 Institute Lecture Award, AIChE
1979 CACHE Committee Educational Award
1981 Distinguished Advisor Award, The University of Texas at Austin
1983 Eminent Chemical Engineer Award, AIChE Diamond Jubilee
1984 Engineering Foundation Faculty Award, The University of Texas at Austin
1984 Best Applied Paper Award, South Texas AIChE Section
1984 Founders Award, Balcones Fault AIChE Section
1987 Joe J. King Professional Engineering Achievement Award, The University of Texas at Austin
1987 D. Hum. , Clemson University
1991 Malcolm Pruitt Award, Council for Chemical Research

Cite as

James R. Fair, interviewed by James J. Bohning in University of Texas at Austin on February 19, 1992. Philadelphia: Science History Institute, n.d. Oral History Transcript 0102. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/k643b218d.

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PDF — 336 KB
fair_jr_0102_FULL.pdf

The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

9 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads