Charles D. Hurd

Born: May 7, 1897 | Utica, NY, US
Died: September 11, 1998 | Evanston, IL, US

Charles Hurd begins his oral history by discussing his early life and his later educational and professional experiences, including his PhD work in organic chemistry at Princeton University and his summer job in Thomas Edison's laboratory. Hurd was recruited to Northwestern University by Frank Whitmore and remained there for his entire career, while consulting for various companies. Hurd reflects on his research, teaching and creation of Molecular Models as a teaching tool, and the negative public perception of chemical industry.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0090
No. of pages: 63
Minutes: 175

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
28 February 1991
Evanston, Illinois

Abstract of Interview

Charles Hurd begins the interview with information and anecdotes about his childhood in upstate New York and his stepfather's career in administering boarding schools and colleges. He discusses his undergraduate education at Syracuse University, his research during World War I in the Chemical Service Sector on poison gas, and a summer job working with Thomas Edison for the Naval Consulting Board. Hurd then describes his graduate work at the University of Minnesota and Princeton University, during which he began his work on ketenes and pyrolysis. This work continued during his instructorship at the University of Illinois, which culminated when Hurd was recruited to Northwestern University by Frank Whitmore. Hurd describes his career at Northwestern and discusses his interests in nomenclature, his work on sugar chemistry and his numerous consultancies in industry. Hurd names many of the graduate students with whom he worked and describes the dynamics of his relationship to them as mentor and his introduction of “Molecular Models” as a teaching tool. Hurd discusses the media's “chemophobia” and negative portrayal of the chemical industry, and describes his own published effots to dispel this negative image and his writings for encyclopedias and dictionaries. Hurd concludes the interview by briefly examining other research projects, patents and colleagues.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1918 Syracuse University BS Chemistry
1921 Princeton University PhD Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

Thomas A. Edison


US Army

Chemical Service Section

University of Illinois at Chicago

1921 to 1924
Chemistry Department, Instructor

Northwestern University

1924 to 1928
Assistant Professor
1928 to 1933
Associate Professor
1933 to 1949
1951 to 1965
Morrison Professor
1951 to 1965
Clare Hamilton Hall Research Professor
Hamilton Hall Research Professor, Emeritus


Year(s) Award

ScD, honorary, Syracuse University


Midwest Award, American Chemical Society, St. Louis Section


Austin M. Patterson Award, American Chemical Society


Honorary membership, Illinois State Academy of Science


Distinguished Service Award, American Chemical Society, Chicago Section

Table of Contents

Childhood, Family History and Early Education

Born in Utica, New York. Father dies and mother remarries. Stepfather heads Cook Academy, the first high school in the US to be attended by Chinese students. V. K. Wellington Koo. Stepfather moves to Keuka College. Hurd attends numerous schools and enjoys all sciences.

Undergraduate Education and Early Professional Experiences

Majors in chemistry and physics. Influential professors and early laboratory work. Chemical Service Sector research at American University during World War I with L. W. Jones. Summer job working with Thomas Edison for Naval Consulting Board in Orange, New Jersey. Meets future wife.

Graduate Education

Works with Jones and Izaak M. Kolthoff. Synthesizes triphenylacetohydroxamic acid and ketenes. PhD thesis and early nomeclature work. Pyrolysis.

Instructorship at the University of Illinois

Interactions with Carl S. Marvel, Roger Adams and Wallace Carothers. Innovates methods to increase yield of ketene. Students. Anecdote about Lewisite. Recruited to Northwestern University by Frank Whitmore.

Early Career at Northwestern University

Whitmore's career at Northwestern. Hurd starts committee of American Chemical Society to study improvements of nomenclature. Discusses problems and importance of nomenclature. Promotions to Morrison Professor and Clare Hamilton Hall Research Professor of Organic Chemistry. Authors book on pyrolysis of carbon compounds.

Academic Activities, Consulting and Teaching

Begins work on sugar chemistry. Consultancies with industry. Whitmore's Institute of Chemistry at Northwestern and leadership of the chemistry department. Graduate students. Molecular Models. Journal of Organic Chemistry and Morris Kharasch.

Thoughts on the Public Perception of Chemistry

Chemophobia in the media. Amadeo Avogadro: The Other Amadeus. How to communicate the positive aspects of chemistry to non-chemists. Writing for encyclopedias and dictionaries.


Work on mustard gas during World War II. Carbon suboxide and levulinic acid. Ozonolysis of triple bonds. Cyclooctatetraene. Spectrophotometry and NMR. Deuterium tracer work in pyrolysis. Patents and colleagues.


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.