The Power of John C. Haas's Good Name

John C. Haas

Portrait of John C. Haas, 2000. CHF Collections, Photograph by Douglas A. Lockard.

In April 2011 Neil Gussman, CHF's strategic communications and media relations manager, interviewed Arnold Thackray, CHF's founder and chancellor, about the key role John C. Haas played in founding CHF.

Nestled in the heart of Philadelphia’s Old City is a world-renowned, unique organization dedicated to telling the story of chemistry. With a museum, a center for scholars, archives, a fabled array of alchemical paintings, unrivalled library resources, public programming activity, and a magazine, the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) is at the center of the study of chemistry, its history, and its impact.

Without John C. Haas none of this would exist.

A Home in Philadelphia

The first stirrings that eventually led to CHF began with the coincident anniversaries in 1976 of the United States bicentennial and the Washington-based American Chemical Society (ACS) centennial. An extra impetus, said a smiling Arnold Thackray, founder and chancellor of what became CHF, was chemists’ “envy of the physicists and their Center for the History of Physics.”

By 1981 the ACS was inviting expressions of interest from universities and other entities who might wish to host a center for the history of chemistry. Philadelphia’s long history with the chemical industry, and the creation early in the twentieth century of the History Division of the ACS by University of Pennsylvania professor Edgar Fahs Smith, made Philadelphia a natural choice. While the historical collections that Smith assembled at Penn had drawn Thackray from Cambridge to Philadelphia as a young academic over a dozen years earlier, to create a viable center would require strong help from the area’s chemical community.

Thackray called a friend at Harvard University to ask who was the leading chemist at Penn. The answer: Charles C. Price, a former ACS president and Swarthmore College board chair. 

“Who is John Haas?”

Price listened to Thackray’s plan and said, “We need to go and talk to John Haas.” Thackray said: “Who is John Haas?” “Charlie took me to meet Mr. Haas,” he recalls. “John—in his characteristically straightforward way—pledged there and then, that he would commit $40,000, if this would catalyze the center coming to Philadelphia.”

Thanks to Haas’s name and reputation, Thackray soon secured additional help from Penn and sufficient funds to launch the fledgling enterprise. “John Haas helped open the door to Ed Jefferson, the chairman and CEO of DuPont.” Jefferson called the CEO of Dow, and both DuPont and Dow were on board. Suddenly there was a combined fund of $300,000, over three years. 

“This was an offer that the ACS couldn’t refuse,” Thackray says. Thus in January 1982, the ACS and the University of Pennsylvania created the Center for the History of Chemistry (CHOC)—initially in vacant basement rooms on Penn’s campus.

“The sequence of events displays John Haas’s manner: he was willing and able to step up and support an idea; John’s involvement opened the door to key individuals; when he said, ‘this is serious,’ people knew it would be good.” 

Complete Integrity

Finally, and critically, Haas made sure the limelight shone on others—thus feeding, not stifling, the cause. “In the years that followed, John helped steer the Center for the History of Chemistry in Philadelphia to global prominence, as he stayed involved through three decades. He served as board member, member of the Board of Overseers, and member of the Fundraising Committee—an engaged friend and advisor,” Thackray says. “He would not hesitate to go on visits with me. He introduced me to Irénée du Pont, the patriach of the du Pont clan, and vouched for me and for what we planned to do.”

Among Haas’s many talents, three stand out. First, the power of his good name was always the ultimate court of appeal. Second, his willingness to be of service, to help make introductions to other people. Finally, and most importantly, he was that rare person who followed through. “If John said he’d do something, you knew it would be done. Mr. Reliable. John was a gentle man in every sense; polite, quiet, and thoughtful. His complete integrity is displayed in the fact that when he said he would do something—he did it.”

That was John Haas.