George M. Wyman

Born: October 13, 1921 | Budapest, HU
Died: October 10, 2017 | Chapel Hill, NC, US

George M. Wyman was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1921. Wyman attended the Lutheran Gimnázium in Budapest until World War II threatened, when he left for the United States to become a chemist. Wyman entered Cornell University as a sophomore finishing his degree in two and a half years. He remained at Cornell for his master's and PhD degrees, working on fluorine chemistry. His research interests fell between the fields of physical and organic chemistry. Wyman began his career in industry working with fluorine compounds and developed his expertise in dye chemistry. During his years at the National Bureau of Standards, Wyman conducted various spectrophotometric measurements of indigo and azo dyes, resulting in some twenty publications. In a decades-long career working for the US Army, Wyman taught himself fluorescence techniques and continued his work on isomerization of dyes. Working for the Army's European Research Office, he identified and established networks of chemists whose work could be useful to the Army. Returning from Europe, Wyman was able to conduct research at University of North Carolina. In the 1960s, Wyman established the International Conference on Photochemistry. After retiring, he spent ten years consulting, bringing people and universities together with funding.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0708
No. of pages: 83
Minutes: 281

Interview Sessions

David J. Caruso and Jody A. Roberts
1-2 May 2013
Carolina Meadows, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Abstract of Interview

George M. Wyman was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1921, one of two children; his father sold textiles, and his mother was a housewife. Wyman attended the Lutheran Gimnazium in Budapest until his last semester of high school, when World War II threatened, and his father sent him to the United States, telling him to become a chemist. Wyman's mother died shortly after Wyman left Hungary, but his sister and father eventually made their way to the United States. Wyman was able to enter Cornell University as a sophomore, despite having no high school diploma, and he finished his undergraduate degree in chemistry in two and a half years. He remained at Cornell for his master's and PhD degrees, working on fluorine chemistry with William T. Miller. Wyman reminisces about faculty changes in Cornell's chemistry department, as well as the new quantitative approach to inorganic chemistry and the mechanistic emphasis in organic chemistry that came at the same time. He also notes that his research interests fell between the fields of physical and organic chemistry and that later in his career he found a disciplinary home in organic photochemistry. After graduation Wyman began his career in industry working with fluorine compounds at Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation's General Chemical Division, but leaving shortly thereafter to join the Process Development Division of General Aniline and Film Company. In this second position, Wyman developed expertise in dye chemistry. Before long Wallace R. Brode offered Wyman a position in his research group at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). During his four years at the NBS Wyman conducted various spectrophotometric measurements of indigo and azo dyes, resulting in some twenty publications, and cultivating in Wyman a lifelong interest in the cis-trans isomerization of indigo. It was at this point in Wyman's career that he was married. In 1954 Wyman took a position at the Quartermaster Research and Development Center in Natick, Massachusetts, beginning a decades-long career working for the U. S. Army. At Natick, Wyman taught himself fluorescence techniques and continued his work on isomerization of dyes. Next, Wyman and his family moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where he worked in the chemistry branch of the Army's European Research Office. His responsibilities there were administrative; he identified and established networks of chemists whose work could be useful to the Army. From Germany he moved to the Army Research Office in Durham, North Carolina, where he was also able to conduct research at University of North Carolina; thus he was able to combine two loves and skills. In the sixties Wyman established the International Conference on Photochemistry. Six years as chief of the chemistry division at the Army's European Research Office in London, followed by another year and a half back in Durham, finished Wyman's stint with the US Army. He retired but spent ten years consulting, essentially still bringing people and universities together with funding.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1941 Cornell University AB Chemistry
1943 Cornell University MS Chemistry
2016 Cornell University PhD Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

Allied Chemical & Dye Corporation

1944 to 1945

General Aniline and Film Corporation

1945 to 1949
Research Chemist

National Bureau of Standards

1949 to 1953
Research Chemist

Quartermaster Research and Development Center

1954 to 1956
Chief of Spectroscopy Section

US Army

1956 to 1960
Chief, Chemistry Branch, European Research Office
1960 to 1974
Directory, Chemistry Division
1974 to 1977
Director, Chemical and Biological Sciences Division
1977 to 1983
Chief of Chemistry, European Research Office
1983 to 1985
Director, Chemical & Biological Sciences Division, Research Office

Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry

1972 to 1973
Sabbatical

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

1973 to 1977
Adjunct Professor of Chemistry
1983 to 1985
Adjunct Professor of Chemistry

Self-employed

1985 to 1995
Consultant

Table of Contents

Early Years
9

Born in Budapest, Hungary. Family background. Father textile salesman, mother housewife. Attended Lutheran Gimnázium until last semester of high school. Fluent in English, German, Hungarian. Summers in England. Travel in Mediterranean. Dropped out of high school as war impended; father sent him to United States.

Cornell University Years
12

Initially lived in New York City with family friend. Accepted into Cornell University without high school diploma. Began as sophomore, finished in two and one-half years. Told by father to become chemist. Found chemistry teachers very engaging. Adapted easily to United States. Mother died shortly after he left Hungary. Father and sister began year-long, complicated trip to United States.

Graduate School Years
27

Stayed at Cornell, working with Professor William Miller. Miller, working on fluorine, left for Manhattan Project, taking group except for Wyman. Research interests fell between organic and physical chemistry. "Stung" twice by others' ethics violations, Wyman worked to establish ethics committee in American Chemical Society (ACS). Father's attempt to return to Hungary in 1947. Faculty changes at Cornell. Peter Debye and the Nazi controversy. Henry Taube, Thor Rubin, and a quantitative approach to inorganic chemistry. William Bruce, Michael J. S. Dewar, and mechanism of organic reactions.

First Jobs
45

Took job at General Chemical. Not a citizen, but still eligible for draft; war effort work kept Army at bay. Worked on fluorine compounds, got one patent. Many famous Hungarian chemists. A year later, war over, next job at General Aniline and Film Company. Worked on dyes. Cis-trans isomerization of indigo and thioindigo. No spectrometers.

Moving to Government
50

Accepted position with National Bureau of Standards; wanted to do basic research. Recruited by Wallace Brode for experience with dyes and for fluency in German. Correlating dye structures with spectra. Cary Model 11. John Gould. Twenty total publications at Bureau; several on cis-trans isomerization; some about azo compounds. Old guard vs. new methods. Met future wife. Left Bureau after four years.

Working for the U. S. Army
62

Natick, Massachusetts, facility not yet ready, so spent six months at Quartermaster Depot in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Army spent much money on instruments, labs at Natick. Fluorescence attachment for Cary spectrometer. Taught himself fluorescence from Theodor Förster's book. Isomerization of dyes for Army. Moved to Army Research Office (ARO) in Frankfurt, Germany, for four years. Daughter's birth. Identified and set up networks of contacts for Army's research; Brode's helpful list. Arne Tiselius. Differences among European research offices of military branches. Travelling in Eastern Europe in Cold War atmosphere.

Back in the United States
77

ARO job in Durham, North Carolina and part-time research at University of North Carolina. David Whitten and photochemistry; twenty publications. Sabbatical at Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry; three publications. Composition of ARO office in Durham. Liked dealing with people, bringing them together, interacting with chemists. ARO's function to transmit relevant research from academia to various ARO labs. National Science Foundation now main supporting agency of research. Initiating series of International Conference on Photochemistry in 1962; Rajanarayanan Srinivasan following in 1967.

London, England, and Back Again
84

Six years of travelling in Western Europe. Less money available for research. Same function, organizational structure, but with addition of computers. Back to Durham, with addition of biological sciences to chemistry. Retired after year and half.

Consulting
94

Ten years; helped universities and chemists find research money. Liked the interaction; could maintain his contacts; maintained contact with developments in chemistry. George Palladino at University of Pennsylvania. Skiing in Utah. Family crisis ended his career. George Hammond and photochemistry. Taking up pipe smoking.

Appendix
98

Six years of travelling in Western Europe. Less money available for research. Same function, organizational structure, but with addition of computers. Back to Durham, with addition of biological sciences to chemistry. Retired after year and half.

Index
99

Six years of travelling in Western Europe. Less money available for research. Same function, organizational structure, but with addition of computers. Back to Durham, with addition of biological sciences to chemistry. Retired after year and half.

About the Interviewer

David J. Caruso

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.