Charles P. Smyth

Born: February 10, 1895 | Clinton, NJ, US
Died: Sunday, March 18, 1990 | Bozeman, MT, US
Photograph of Charles P. Smyth

Charles P. Smyth. CHF Collections.

Charles P. Smyth begins his oral history interview discussing his undergraduate education at Princeton and his tenure at the National Bureau of Standards and the Chemical Warfare Service during the First World War. Smyth discusses his PhD training at Harvard and his return to Princeton as an instructor. His work on dipole moment led to an important discovery about benzene ring structure that proved the Kekulé model correct. The interview ends with a discussion of Smyth's work on deuterium and the Manhattan Project. In the appendix, Scientist in a Jeep," Smyth narrates a detailed account of his work in the US, France and Germany with the ALSOS Mission. 

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0042
No. of pages: 81
Minutes: 609

Interview Sessions

Jeffrey L. Sturchio and Ron Doel
30 May 1986
Princeton, New Jersey

Abstract of Interview

Charles P. Smyth begins the interview by naming the many scientists in his family and discussing his undergraduate education at Princeton, with descriptions of the curriculum, faculty, and facilities. He then describes his tenure at the National Bureau of Standards and the Chemical Warfare Service, where he worked on electroplating and poison gas during the First World War. Smyth continues with a discussion of his PhD training at Harvard, where his thesis examined thallium amalgams. He then describes his return to Princeton as an instructor, his early teaching and students, and the options he considered for research projects. His work on dipole moment led to an important discovery about benzene ring structure that proved the Kekulé model correct. He then discusses the funding situation at Princeton and his first visits to Europe, where he met Peter Debye, Karl Bonhöffer and James Franck. Smyth next discusses department colloquia at Princeton, attempts to recruit Debye and Enrico Fermi to Princeton, and changes in the chemical field during the 1920s and 1930s, including the emergence of chemical physics. The interview ends with a discussion of Smyth's work on deuterium and the Manhattan Project. In the appendix, “Scientist in a Jeep,” Smyth narrates a detailed account of his work in the US, France and Germany with the ALSOS Mission, which investigated Nazi Germany's scientific capabilities at the end of the Second World War. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1916 Princeton University AB Chemistry
1917 Princeton University AM Chemistry
1921 Harvard University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

National Bureau of Standards

1917
Chemist

US Army

1918
Second Lieutenant, Ordnance Reserve Corps
1918
Second Lieutenant, Chemical Warfare Service
1918
Chemical Warfare Service

Princeton University

1920 to 1923
Instructor
1923 to 1927
Assistant Professor
1927 to 1938
Associate Professor
1938 to 1958
Professor
1958 to 1963
David B. Jones Professor of Chemistry
1963 to 1990
David B. Jones Professor of Chemistry Emeritus

Honors

Year(s) Award
1947

Medal of Freedom, US Army

1954

Nichols Medal, New York Section, American Chemical Society

1970

Honorary Degree (Science honoris causa), July 23, University of Salford, Salford, England

Table of Contents

Family and Early and Undergraduate Education
1

Many family members are scientists. Attends the Lawrenceville school and Princeton University in pursuit of a broad education, and enters the chemistry department. Discusses classmates, professors, curriculum and facilities at Princeton.

National Bureau of Standards and Chemical Warfare Service
5

Works on an electroplating project as part of the war effort. Discusses colleagues at the National Bureau of Standards. Becomes second lieutenant in the Army Ordnance Department and works on poison gas. Discusses safety standards and toxic substances. Names the best physical chemists in that era.

Graduate Education at Harvard University
9

Attends Harvard after World War I. Pursues thesis on thallium amalgam project with T. W. Richards. Discusses colleagues and faculty at Harvard.

Early Career at Princeton University
13

Accepts instructorship at Princeton. Teaches freshman lab while completing thesis. Discusses relationships with Karl Compton and William Foster. Research program options of infrared, atom smashing or dielectrics. Students. Chemical physics versus physical chemistry. Early publications on dipole moment. Research expenses, research support, and consulting. Instrument building.

Early Voyages to Europe
21

Travels to Bucharest as the American delegate to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Meets Peter Debye and visits his lab in Leipzig. European colleagues Karl Bonhöffer and James Franck.

Princeton University
23

Studies quantum mechanics with Eugene Wigner. Departmental colloquia with Niels Bohr and Niels Bjerrum. Collaboration with Henry Eyring. Princeton attempts to recruit Debye and Enrico Fermi. Publications on resonance shifts in organic molecules. Collaboration with Kodak.

Chemical Physics in the 1920s and 1930s
29

Princeton is a center for chemical physics in the interwar years. Edits Journal of Chemical Physics. Section for Chemical Physics is started in the American Chemical Society. Organizes a symposium on dielectrics. Students in the interwar years. Deuterium research and the Manhattan Project.

Appendix: "Scientist in a Jeep:" The ALSOS Mission
37

Joins the ALSOS Mission and begins work at the Pentagon. Difficulties in leaving for Europe.

Appendix (cont.): Paris
39

Flight to Paris. Paris and the Royal Monceau hotel in wartime: accommodations, uniforms, food, transportation. German lessons with E. C. Kemble. Incendiary investigations with Louis Fieser at the Pouderie Nationale.

Appendix (cont.): The Rhineland
45

Crosses into Germany. First headquarters and Easter services at Aachen. Investigates the Physical Institute at Cologne. Explores the Rhine district. Explains that ALSOS civilian scientists were unarmed. Crosses the Rhine at Frankfurt on a pontoon bridge. Interrogates Dr. Czerny. Searches for Schumacher. Cinema in Frankfurt, "wine liberation" in Aachen and squab near Cologne. Wetzlar, Giessen, Marburg and Kassel.

Appendix (cont.): Göttingen
55

Interrogates four prominent professors at the University of Göttingen and offered the rectorship of the university. Discovers headquarters of the German National Research Council at Merseburg. Finds German supply of heavy water at Osterode.

Appendix (cont.): Leipzig
61

Visits Debye's former lab in Leipzig. Interviews Hund and Doepple at the University of Leipzig. Recalls earlier visit to Leipzig when Hitler stayed in same hotel. Encounters Nazi tank column and finds supply of uranium yellow cake in Stassfurt. Interrogates Paul Harteck about his work on isotope separation. War ends. Visits Karl Bonhöffer, whose bishop brother was assassinated by the Nazis. Finds Gestapo scientific papers in buried urns in the Harz region.

Notes
70
Index
72

About the Interviewer

Jeffrey L. Sturchio

Jeffrey L. Sturchio is president and CEO of the Global Health Council. Previously he served as vice president of corporate responsibility at Merck & Co., president of the Merck Company Foundation, and chairman of the U.S. Corporate Council on Africa. Sturchio is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Applied Economics and the Study of Business Enterprise at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Healthy Next Generation of the World Economic Forum. He received an AB in history from Princeton University and a PhD in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Ron Doel