James R. Fair

Born: October 14, 1920 | Charleston, MO, US
Died: October 11, 2010 | Travis County, TX, US

This interview with James R. Fair begins with a discussion of Fair's childhood in the Midwest. It covers his graduate career, his work during World War II and his long career with Monsanto.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0102
No. of pages: 70
Minutes: 270

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
19 February 1992
University of Texas at Austin

Abstract of Interview

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 PhD 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.


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 in St. Louis

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


Year(s) Award
1965 to 1967

Elected Director and Member of Council, AIChE


Personal Achievement Award, Chemical Engineering Magazine


Elected to Fellow Grade of Membership, AIChE


William H. Walker Award, AIChE


Elected to National Academy of Engineering


Chemical Engineering Practice Award, AIChE


Andre Wilkins Award, Tulsa AIChE Section


Founders Award, AIChE


Distinguished Engineering Graduate, The University of Texas at Austin


DSc, Washington University, St. Louis, MO


Institute Lecture Award, AIChE


CACHE Committee Educational Award


Distinguished Advisor Award, The University of Texas at Austin


Eminent Chemical Engineer Award, AIChE Diamond Jubilee


Engineering Foundation Faculty Award, The University of Texas at Austin


Best Applied Paper Award, South Texas AIChE Section


Founders Award, Balcones Fault AIChE Section


Joe J. King Professional Engineering Achievement Award, The University of Texas at Austin


D. Hum. , Clemson University


Malcolm Pruitt Award, Council for Chemical Research

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education

Family background. Early life in South Carolina, Kansas, and Arkansas. Life-long interest in railroads. High school in Little Rock, Arkansas, and early interest in science.

College Education

Science and mathematics courses at The Citadel military school and transfer to Georgia Institute of Technology. Discussion of curriculum and chemical engineering program at Georgia Tech. Interest in unit operations. Effects of World War II on curriculum and career options.

Wartime Career at Monsanto Chemical Company

Position with Monsanto and assignment at general headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri. Positions at Kankakee Ordnance Works and Longhorn Ordnance Works. Discussion of TNT nitration process. Civil engineering work. Involvement in set-up of synthetic rubber plant in Texas City. Work with ethylene cracking furnaces. Monsanto vs. Dow processes for styrene. Membership in AIChE.

Postwar Career at Monsanto Chemical Company

Postwar shift to commercial petrochemical production based on acetylene and ethylene. Work on ethylene plant joint venture with Socony Vacuum Oil Company. Styrene plant analysis. Texas City polystyrene plant destroyed in Grandcamp explosion and rebuilt as center of Monsanto's petrochemical business. Academic leave at University of Michigan. Work with BASF on German acetylene pilot plant.

Graduate School

Fellowship at the University of Texas. PhD work on catalysis and reaction engineering with Howard Rase. Position with Shell Development Company.

Return to Monsanto Chemical Company

Work with Ralph Wenner at Central Research Laboratories. Heading engineering research group. Company consultant in areas of ethylene and hydrocarbon pyrolysis. Shift from emphasis on acetylene-based to ethylene-based derivatives. Work from 1964 to 1979 heading a technology function to serve corporate Monsanto.

Academic Career

Monsanto's continuing education program and affiliation with Washington University. Course in process design at Washington University. Offered first chair in engineering at University of Texas (UT). Discussion of Monsanto's attitude toward publishing, and papers on distillation technology, technical writing, and trace quantity engineering to protect the environment. Discussion of contribution to Perry's Handbook and international textbook on distillation. Discussion of chemical engineering degree requirements and need for collaboration with industry. Development of Monsanto's FLOWTRAN computer program for process simulation/computer-aided design. FLOWTRAN licensed to Department of Energy. Aspen Technology. Development of UT's Separations Research Program (SRP), with industrial support for fundamental and applied research. John McKetta chair, teaching, students. Research in separations, heat transfer, extraction, adsorption, and structured packings. Lecture for King Award. International collaborations and SRP publications. Importance and advantages of distillation processes and research. Discussion of graduate students, industrial vs. academic careers, involvement in AIChE Dynamic Objectives Committee and publications and continuing education committees. Consulting activities. Computer program design. Discussion of family.


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.