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Carl S. Marvel Papers

  • 1912–1988
  • American
    Created and used by Carl Marvel
  • 47 linear feet
    Papers, artifacts, photographs, audio-visual
  • Gift of John T. and Mollie Marvel
  • 88:11
  • Copyright restrictions may apply (contact CHF archivist).


Includes correspondence, working papers, lab notebooks, scrapbooks, artifacts, and ephemera primarily from the latter years of Marvel’s career.

Background note

Born in 1894 on a small farm outside of Waynesville, Illinois, Carl “Speed” Marvel got his start at the dawn of the American chemical industry: during World War I, supplies of chemicals from the great German industrial houses were disrupted. As a research assistant at the University of Illinois he was said to have had a "nose" for chemistry that was so well developed that he could sniff a compound and deduce its constituent parts. Marvel himself claimed that he had had a lot of practice at synthesizing compounds, having done some 70 preparations to the average research assistant’s 20. He did a lot of synthesis work because he enjoyed it. Marvel is famous for having remarked, “I don’t know anybody who has a job where their work is their fun as much as chemists.” Roger Adams became Marvel’s mentor and lifelong friend, inviting the young chemist to contribute to the influential series of publications Organic Chemical Reagents (1919–1922). Another significant friendship formed in the 1920s was the one between Marvel and Wallace H. Carothers, whom he called “Doc.” The great chemist and father of nylon was one of Marvel’s fishing buddies. Beginning in 1928 Marvel signed a contract to serve as a consultant to the E. I. DuPont de Nemours Company, a professional relationship that lasted for over a half-century.

A lover of fine wines and an enthusiastic fresh- and saltwater fisherman, Carl Marvel took his pleasures seriously, but none of them more seriously than birding. Until his health failed him, Marvel was a dedicated birdwatcher, and this hobby runs like a thread throughout his life, manifesting itself in letters, photographs, and gifts sent him by his former students.

During World War II, Marvel worked for the National Defense Research Committee to create synthetic rubber, and the efforts of the group that he spearheaded were crowned by success within one year’s time. (Perhaps Marvel had so much fun as a chemist because he was so good at what he did.) In the latter portion of his career Marvel became interested in the problem of creating high-temperature stable polymers, and his investigations carried out under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U. S. Army, and finally the U. S. Air Force bore fruit with the synthesis of polybenzimidazole, which was found to have significant applications for national defense as well as for everyday living. Polybenzimidazole is as useful to the fabrication of spacesuits as it is to the manufacture of oven mitts. In 1986 Carl Marvel’s many years of faithful and productive service to his profession and to his country were rewarded when President Ronald Reagan presented the National Medal of Science to him in the East Room of the White House. Marvel passed away in 1988.

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