A Century of Progress

Ray Harroun pilots his Marmon-Nordyke Wasp across the finish line capturing the win at the first Indianapolis 500. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team are the first to reach the South Pole. Researcher Marie Curie wins the Nobel Prize in chemistry — the first woman to earn such an honor.

There were a lot of firsts that year in 1911, but closer to home Purdue celebrated the founding of the School of Chemical Engineering. While many changes have occurred over the century, the same drive for discovery and excellence in education has continued.

As we celebrate this important centennial, take a look back at significant events that have shaped the school as compiled by Phillip Wankat, the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Cristina D. Farmus, administrative director in the school. 

1902 to 1934

The Founding of ChE and the Peffer Years 

By the 1880s, intense competition in the manfacture of chemicals had made the need for engineers with training in chemistry obvious to many observers. George E. Davis in Manchester, England, crystallized the need for chemical engineers with a series of lectures in 1887. The next year, the first curriculum in chemical engineering was established in the chemistry department at MIT.

Percy Evans1902

Percy Evans at Purdue offered a course on Industrial Inorganic Chemistry Lectures that led to the 1907 establishment of a chemical engineering curriculum within Chemistry. 

Harry Peffer1911

Continual growth in the student body led to the 1911 founding of the school under the direction of Prof. Harry Peffer. Peffer died in 1934.

Peffer and students1925

In Purdue Hall, ChE had its first lab. Peffer (right) shown with students.

Heavilon Hall1930

ChE outgrew Purdue Hall and moved into larger quarters in Heavilon Hall, home of the School from 1930 to 1940.

1935 to 1950

The Bray and Shreve Years

The world was mired in the Depression and war clouds were gathering. Perhaps because students thought a degree in chemical engineering
offered them a better chance for gainful employment, more students entered chemical engineering during the Depression.

John BrayElizabeth Henius1935

John Bray became head of the school. 

Elizabeth Henius (BS ’35) was the first alumna of the school.

CMET Building1940

The CMET building is completed in August 1940. Total cost was $580,000.

Unit Operations Lab1941

Unit Operations Lab. There were few female students in ChE until the mid-70s.

Synthetic Rubber Synthesis1944

The school was heavily involved in the war effort during World War II. Synthetic Rubber Synthesis in 1944 is shown.

R. Norris Shreve1947

After Bray stepped down due to failing health, R. Norris Shreve became the head. He organized the school into Chemical, Metallurgical, and Engineering Geology divisions that were officially recognized in 1953.

Margaret Claypool Willoughby1950

Sarah Margaret Claypool Willoughby (Ph.D. ’50) was Purdue's first female Ph.D. in Engineering.

1951 to 1966

Midlife Crisis 

By 1951, the soldiers were home, and many of them were finishing college. Normalcy had, to some extent, returned. World War II had spotlighted some of the shortcomings of engineers who had been trained under the old engineering art/shop system. Important groups called for major changes in the way engineers were educated — the engineering science revolution. In coping with these changes, the school went through a somewhat painful midlife crisis.

Edward Comings1951

Edward Comings took over as head and tried to increase the research orientation of the school. Unfortunately, this effort foundered due to faculty turmoil caused by resistance to the engineering science revolution. During Comings’ tenure, large numbers of GI Bill students graduated.

Dean Hawkins (shown with Golding and Shreve) 1955

An ASEE report repeated by a 1957 Purdue report by Dean Hawkins (shown with Golding and Shreve) called for an engineering science revamping of the curriculum that led to a schism in the ChE faculty.

Henry Sampson1958

Dr. Henry Sampson (BSChE ’56, Ph.D. ’67 Illinois), the first ChE African-American alumnus, overcame challenges and racism to become a noted inventor. 

Brage Golding1959

Comings left and was replaced as head by Brage Golding, a student of Shreve. The school legally split into Chemical Engineering and Metallurgical Engineering during the awkward period when there was no head in Chemical Engineering. During the next seven years, the undergraduate curriculum was modernized, but the graduate program and research stagnated and subsequently declined.

Duncan Mellichamp with analog computer1963

Duncan Mellichamp (Ph.D. ’64) with analog computer. Graduate students were aware of faculty tensions, and many left with an MS.

1967 to 1987

Rebirth as a Modern Program

In the late 1960s, the United States was mired in the Vietnam War, but Purdue was one of the least disrupted colleges in the country. Most Chemical Engineering programs at research universities had become much more research-oriented than Purdue’s. The school’s research and graduate program had recovered and diversified into new areas such as biochemical engineering. 

Robert Greenkorn1967

Robert Greenkorn was hired as head and charged with bringing about the rebirth of the school as a modern program by increasing both the graduate program and the research portfolio of the school. This task was successfully continued by Lowell Koppel, who became head in 1973. Many professors hired by Greenkorn and Koppel are still at Purdue.

Linda (Russell) Brown1977

During Koppel’s tenure, the percent of women students increased dramatically due partly to the Women in Engineering Program. Linda (Russell) Brown (BS ’77) is shown.

George Tsao1979-1980

George Tsao and his colleagues built the Laboratory for Renewable Resources Engineering (LORRE) into a major force in biochemical engineering research.

Linda Wang1980

Linda Wang, left, (1980-present) met the challenge of being the pioneering female professor in ChE. 

Ron Andres1981

Ron Andres became head and improved faculty morale, but expansion of the research program, particularly experimental research, was severely hampered by space constraints. He stepped down in 1987.

MSEE building1986

By the end of Andres’  tenure, relief of the space crunch was in sight. Materials Engineering was scheduled to move into the MSEE building in 1988.

1997 to 2011

Building for the Future 

By the late 1980s, Purdue, like many other land-grant institutions, had moved away from the state-funded land-grant model. The story of the years from 1987 to the school’s 100th anniversary in 2011 can be distilled into two words: space and money. Near the end of this period, the nation sunk into the Great Recession and economic worries became paramount.

Gintaras Rex Reklaitis1987

Gintaras “Rex” Reklaitis became head in 1987, the year before Materials Engineering moved to the new MSEE Building. After building renovations, the space problem was alleviated, but became limiting again by the end of the 1990s.

Robert and Marilyn ForneyGroundbreaking2002

Robert (BSChE ’47, Ph.D. ’50) and Marilyn (BSChE ’47) Forney stepped forward to make the major gift necessary to start a capital fund drive for a new addition to the Chemical Engineering Building. 

Arvind Varma2004

Distinguished Prof. Arvind Varma was hired as ChE head. He has been challenged by economic woes and renovation of CMET.

Forney Hall of Chemical Engineering was dedicated in 2004 shortly after Arvind Varma became head. The new facility helps to attract stellar faculty to Chemical Engineering. 

Julie Liu (center) and her grad students2008

Julie Liu (ChE 2008-present) center, and her grad students work on tissue and cartilage engineering. She is active in AIChE Women’s Initiatives Committee.

Jim Caruthers2010

As director of the Indiana Advanced Electric Vehicle Training and Education Consortium, Jim Caruthers leads Purdue’s electric vehicle initiative. Its goal is to educate a new generation of highly skilled workers to design, build and service electric vehicles.

President France Crdova with graduate student Sara Yohe2011

Graduate student Sara Yohe (right) describes biofuels projects lab to President France Córdova during Córdova’s visit to ChE.