John Christian Warner

Born: May 28, 1897 | Goshen, IN, US
Died: April 12, 1989 | Pittsburgh, PA, US

John C. Warner begins his oral history interview discussing his family, his high school interest in science. He enrolled in Indiana University in 1915, where he received his AB in chemistry in 1919, his MA in 1920, and his PhD in 1923. In 1926, he joined the faculty of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he spent the rest of his career, rising to become president of in 1950. Warner concludes the interview with a discussion of his family and reflections on his role in the advanced educational development in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0044
No. of pages: 95
Minutes: 333

Interview Sessions

John A. Heitmann
8 February 1984
Gibsonia, Pennsylvania

Abstract of Interview

John C. Warner begins the interview with a discussion of his family and childhood years growing up on a farm. He developed an interest in science in high school due to the encouragement of his science teacher, G. W. Warner. He enrolled in Indiana University in 1915. There, he received his AB in chemistry in 1919, his M.A. in 1920, and his PhD in 1923. While in college, Warner worked for the Barrett Company working on synthetic phenol processing. As a graduate student, he was a research chemist for the Cosden Oil Company. After working for Cosden for just under a year, he returned to Indiana University as a chemistry instructor while completing his graduate studies. In 1926, he joined the faculty of the Carnegie Institute of Technology (Carnegie Mellon University) as a chemistry instructor. Warner spent the rest of his career at Carnegie. He rose through the university ranks, eventually becoming president of Carnegie Mellon in 1950. Warner restructured and developed the University's chemistry department. During his time at Carnegie, he worked closely with Charles Thomas on the chemistry, metallurgy, and plutonium purification aspects of the Manhattan Project. He also served as a liaison between Oak Ridge Laboratories and Monsanto Company for this project. Warner became a board member of Jones and Laughlin, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and served as director of Spang and Company. Warner concludes the interview with a discussion of his family and reflections on his role in the advanced educational development in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1919 Indiana University AB Chemistry
1920 Indiana University MA Chemistry
2016 Indiana University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

Barrett Company

1918 to 1919

Cosden Oil Company

1920 to 1921
Research Chemist

Indiana University

1922 to 1923
Chemistry Instructor

Wayne Chemicals Corporation

1924 to 1926
Research Chemist

Carnegie Institute of Technology

1926 to 1928
Chemistry Instructor
1928 to 1933
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
1933 to 1936
Associate Professor of Theoretical Chemistry
1936 to 1938
Associate Professor of Metallurgy
1938 to 1949
Professor of Chemistry and Department Head
1945 to 1949
Dean of Graduate Studies
1949 to 1950
Vice President and President Elect
1950 to 1965
1965 to 1989


Year(s) Award

Pittsburgh Junior Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year Award


Pittsburgh Graphic Arts Council Award


Horatio Alger Award


Western Pennsylvania Board of Industrial Realtors Award


Pennsylvania Award for Excellence in Education


Distinguished Alumnus Award, Indiana University

Table of Contents

Family History and Childhood

Parents and grandparents. Childhood on tenant farm. Early interest in science. Inspiring science teacher.

College and Graduate School

Fraternity and football activities. Faculty members. Chemistry department. Academic chemistry in the 1920s. Colleagues at Indiana University.

Early Work Experience

Wartime research at the Barrett Company. J. Bennett Hill. Harold Urey and other colleagues. Cosden Oil Company. Racial tension in Oklahoma. Louise Hamer.

Teaching career

Carnegie Tech chemistry department. Harry Seltz. History of Carnegie Tech. Developing graduate courses and choosing texts. Funding for graduate students. President Doherty. Kinetics research. Goals and guidelines for chemical education. Remembering graduate students: Paul Fugassi, Bill Svirbely, Dave McKinney, Sam Eagle and others.

Chemical Community of Pre-World War II

Farrington Daniels, Morris Kharasch, Jack Kirkwood, George Scatchard, Charles Price and Tom McCutcheon. Work of Martin Kilpatrick. Speakers at Carnegie Tech. Early years of chemistry department. Anti-Semitism in chemical profession.

Manhattan Project

Glenn Seaborg and the Chicago Group. The Hanford piles. Coordinating research. The bomb. Liaison between Monsanto and Oak Ridge.

Post War Environment at Carnegie Tech.

Slow beginnings. Becoming president of Carnegie Tech. Fundraising. Influence of Ben Fairless. Mellons and Scaifes. Educational goals.

Corporate and Committee Work

Jones & Laughlin, PPG, and the Dravo Corporation. Spang and Co. Louise Warner. ACS activities. Election to the Academy. Nuclear powered airplane. I. I. Rabi.

Final Thoughts

Future of fundamental research. Children. Science and engineering in developing nations. The Ford Foundation and UNESCO.


About the Interviewer

John A. Heitmann

John A. Heitmann holds a BS degree in chemistry from Davidson College and an MA degree in history from Clemson University. From 1971 to 1977, he worked as a chemist in the metallurgical industry. He then studied at the Johns Hopkins University under Owen Hannaway and received his doctorate in the history of science in 1983.