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Oral history interview with Herbert T. Pratt

  • 2006-Jun-13 – 2006-Jun-14

Oral history interview with Herbert T. Pratt

  • 2006-Jun-13 – 2006-Jun-14

Herbert T. Pratt was born in Leaksville, North Carolina (now Eden, North Carolina) in 1926. An only child, Pratt grew up surrounded by books. His parents valued history, and he relays stories of his grandfather, Josiah Smith, and his great-grandfather Pratt. He mentions the role of education in his life and discusses growing up in a textile mill town. Pratt notes that his family was better off than most during the Great Depression due in part to his parents’ thriftiness. His early schooling was in a school four blocks from his home, and he reflects on his teachers in the first seven grades. When Pratt got to eighth grade, he became very interested in science. He remembers tinkering with his uncle when he was a child, but eighth grade was his first real exposure to science. He loved his chemistry and physics classes but does not remember much from his math class. Pratt graduated from high school in 1942 at the age of sixteen and started working at the local textile mill, Fieldcrest Mills. He relates a story in which he was burned by hot pyridine. He also worked as a “devil,” an apprentice for a local printer, Francis Slate. In that role, Pratt learned about layout and aesthetics of the printed page, knowledge that benefitted him the rest of his life. He next went to college at Tri-State College (now Triune University) in Angola, Indiana, because it allowed one to earn a college degree in twenty-seven months. At Tri-State, he worked hard, majoring in chemical engineering. He discusses chemical engineering, the lab environment at Tri-State, and the curriculum. Upon graduation, he took a position at the King-Seeley Corporation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he worked primarily on electroplating development. He worked there for one year before moving back to North Carolina to work at Fieldcrest where he set up quality control for chemicals.

While at Fieldcrest, Pratt met his wife Mary who worked in a lab set up by the Institute of Textile Technology based in Charlottesville, Virginia. When that project ended, she took a job at Fieldcrest. When they were considering getting married, the company would not let spouses work together, so Mary became a high school chemistry teacher instead. They started a family, and Pratt realized he needed a higher salary. He applied for a position at DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware, which he received. He started working on how to process Dacron in the Textiles Department. He reflects on work travel, his coworkers and supervisors, and the company culture at DuPont. Pratt also provides a broad overview of his work at DuPont, including mentioning serving as an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University. In one of his roles, he was in charge of quality management and helped to standardize definitions to make the company more open and honest. He also mentions becoming a certified chemical engineer. While he was at DuPont, Pratt got involved in forensic work. One case was in Atlanta, Georgia, and the other was in Delaware. He discusses the two cases in detail and mentions his role as an expert witness. He also speaks about his involvement in the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC), editing Dyeing for a Living, written by Mark Clark, and the “I Remember When” column.

During the second session of the interview, Pratt discuss his collections. He recalls that he purchased the first book of his book collection in 1940 or 1941 and discusses building his collection, which consists primarily of chemistry books and hymnals. He mentions stores where he purchased books and brings out several chemistry-related books in his collection, including William Enfield’s Institutes of Natural Philosophy, Theoretical and Experimental and Henry A. Mott’s manuals. He discusses cataloging his books and insurance before mentioning his research on James Curtis Booth. He also compares The American Chemist and Chemical News. Pratt then moves to discussing his other collections of hymnals and coat hangers. He does not collect periodicals because they are an “ongoing thing.” He concludes by discussing his analysis of a vacuum cleaner bag.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 132 pages
  • 8h 47m 34s
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Credit line
  • 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.

Institutional location

Oral history number 0349

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • January 19, 1926
  • Eden, North Carolina, United States
  • January 23, 2014
  • Newark, Delaware, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1945 Tri-State University (U.S.) BS Chemical Engineering
1987 Goddard College MA History

Professional Experience

King-Seeley Thermos Co.

  • 1945 to 1946 Development Engineer

Fieldcrest Mills Inc.

  • 1946 to 1948 Textile Chemist
  • 1948 to 1952 Head of Analytical and Applied Chemistry

E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company

  • 1952 to 1963 Customer Service Representative
  • 1963 to 1966 Research Engineer
  • 1966 to 1972 Technical Representative
  • 1972 to 1976 Technical Specialist
  • 1976 to 1980 Senior Technical Specialist
  • 1980 to 1985 Senior Technical Specialist


Year(s) Award
1993 American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists’ Olney Medal
1997 Harold C. Chapin Award

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PDF — 1.0 MB

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

19 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads