Allen G. Debus

Born: August 16, 1926 | Chicago, IL, US
Died: Friday, March 6, 2009 | Lake County, IL, US
Photograph of Allen G. Debrus

CHF Collections, Photograph by Douglas Lockard

Allen G. Debus grew up in Evanston, a suburb to the north of Chicago, where he attended public schools. He earned a BS in chemistry, with almost enough credits for a second major in history. After working at Abbott Laboratories for about five years, Debus decided to seek a PhD in the history of science, at Harvard University under I. Bernard Cohen. He accepted an assistant professorship University of Chicago and became the first director of the Morris Fishbein Center for the Study of the History of Science and Medicine. Debus wanted to study the place of chemistry in the scientific revolution with materials available to all; to that end he has a large collection of rare books from this time period, a collection he began in the early 1940's. He says that he has about 650 such books, the earliest from 1501. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0365
No. of pages: 65
Minutes: 191
Sponsor: Bolton Society

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
29 March 2007
Deerfield, Illinois

Abstract of Interview

Allen Debus was born in Chicago, Illinois, an only child. He grew up in Evanston, a suburb to the north of Chicago, where he attended public schools. Interested in chemical engineering, he was accepted at Rose-Hulman in Indiana, but anticipating that he would be drafted into the Army, he decided to attend Northwestern University instead so that he could remain at home. Never drafted, he earned a BS in chemistry, with almost enough credits for a second major in history. From there he went to Indiana University as assistant to John Murray, who advised Debus to write his master's thesis on the history of chemistry in the Tudor-Stuart period. Instead, Debus met and married Brunilda Lopez-Rodriguez; both took chemist jobs at Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago, Illinois. After working at Abbott for about five years, Debus decided to seek a PhD in the history of science, a field of study in only three schools: Harvard University, University of Wisconsin, and Cornell University. He chose Harvard, where he wrote his dissertation on the English Paracelsians under I. Bernard Cohen. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to University College in London, attracted there by Douglas McKie. He met Walter Pagel, who served as a long-distance dissertation advisor. When Debus returned he gave a paper at a meeting of the History of Science Society, at which Cohen introduced him to Cyril Smith of the University of Chicago. Debus was invited to meet the other faculty at University of Chicago and was then offered an assistant professorship. At that time there had been only seven previous PhD 's granted to history of science students at Harvard, and Debus was one of the first in the history of chemistry, so Debus' appointment was in the history department. Eventually the Morris Fishbein Center for the Study of the History of Science and Medicine was established at the University, and Debus became its first director. He retained his named chair into his retirement, which occurred in 1996. Debus' academic interest has long been 17th century chemistry. Paracelsus and people like him were interested not in making gold from base metals, but in understanding nature through analysis by fire. Debus wanted to study the place of chemistry in the scientific revolution with materials available to all; to that end he has a large collection of rare books from this time period, a collection he began in the early 1940's. He says that he has about 650 such books, the earliest from 1501. A scholar not just of the Paracelsians but also of vaudeville music, Debus also collects phonograph records dating from the 1890-1930's; of these he has more than 15,000, with 40 machines to play them on. He writes notes for historic compact discs of American popular music. Debus has won many prestigious awards in his nearly 40 years at the University of Chicago, and he has published many books and articles. He continues his research and his music-listening at his home in Deerfield, Illinois. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1947 Northwestern University BS Chemistry
1949 Indiana University Bloomington AM History (assistant to John J. Murray)
1961 Harvard University PhD History of Science (under I. B. Cohen)

Professional Experience

Abbott Laboratories

1951 to 1956
Research and Development Chemist

Harvard University

1957 to 1959
Teaching Fellowship

University of Chicago

1961 to 1965
Assistant Professor of the History of Science
1965 to 1968
Associate Professor of the History of Science
1968 to 1978
Professor of the History of Science
1971 to 1977
Director, Morris Fishbein Center for the study of the History of Science and Medicine
1978 to 1996
Morris Fishbein Professor of the History of Science and Medicine
1996 to 2008
Morris Fishbein Professor Emeritus of the History of Science and Medicine

Honors

Year(s) Award
1957 to 1958

Bowdoin Award in the Natural Sciences

1959 to 1960

Fulbright and Social Science Research Council Fellowship

1960 to 1961

Fels Foundation Fellowship

1961 to 1962

American Philosophical Society Research Grant

1961 to 1963

National Science Foundation Research Grant

1962 to 1970

National Institutes of Health Research Grant

1966 to 1967

Overseas Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge

1966 to 1967

Guggenheim Fellowship

1969

Overseas Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge

1971 to 1974

National Science Foundation Research Grant

1972 to 1973

Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

1974 to 1975

National Institutes of Health Research Grant

1975 to 1976

National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, The Newberry Library, Chicago

1977 to 1978

National Science Foundation Research Grant

1977 to 1978

National Institutes of Health Research Grant

1978

Edward Kremers Award of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy

1978

Member, Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Award Committee

1978

Pfizer Book Award, History of Science Society

1980 to 1981

National Science Foundation Research Grant

1980

Member, Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Award Committee

1981 to 1982

Fellow, Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin

1981 to 1983

National Science Foundation Research Grant

1982

Appointed to the International Advisory Committee, the Cohn Institute for the History of Science and Ideas of Tel-Aviv University and the Sidney M. Edelstein Center for the History of Philosophy of Science of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem

1983

Invited Lecturer, University of Coimbra

1984 to 1985

Visiting Distinguished Professor, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Arizona State University

1985

DSc, Honorary, Catholic University of Louvain

1985 to 1986

Consultant, Literature and Science Curriculum, Georgia Institute of Technology

1987

NEH Fellow, The Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, D. C. )

1987

Elected Foreign Associate Member, Académico Correspondente Estrangeiro (Classe de Ciências) Académia das Ciências de Lisboa

1987

Dexter Award, American Chemical Society

1988

Member, International Program Committee, Portuguese meeting of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science

1990

Visiting Lecturer, Insituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici

1990

Visiting Professor, Instituto de Química, Universidade de Sãn Paulo, Brazil

1992 to 1993

Consultant to the History of Medicine Library of the National Library of Medicine for the 500th Anniversary of the birth of Paracelsus

1992 to 1997

National Institutes of Health Research Grant

1993 to 1996

Appointed to the International Advisory Committee, the Cohn Institute for the History of Science and Ideas of Tel Aviv University

1994

Sarton Medal, History of Science Society

1996

Distinguished Lecturer, History of Science Society

Table of Contents

Family Background
1

Born in Chicago, Illinois. Raised in Evanston, Illinois. Attends public schools. Some influential teachers.

College Years
3

Admitted to Northwestern University to study engineering. Switched to chemistry. More interested in history. Began master's degree at Indiana University but quit to get married. Worked at Abbott Laboratories.

History of Science Student
5

Decides to attend Harvard University for PhD in history of science. Begins study of English Paracelsians under I. Bernard Cohen. Wins Fulbright to London. Meets Walter Pagel.

University of Chicago
12

Accepts assistant professorship in history department. Gradually changes from teaching undergraduate physics to graduate history. Oriental Institute brings Noel Swerdlow from Yale. Morris Fishbein Center for the Study of the History of Science and Medicine established. Debus named director of Fishbein Center; then has named chair. Continues to collect books, particularly rare books dealing with 17th century alchemy. Also collects records of American popular music from 1890–1940. Discusses his favorite books and records. Pictures of Debus and books. Picture of the Debuses.

Bibliography
60
Index
62

About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

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.