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Allen G. Debus

Allen G. Debus

CHF Collections, Photograph by Douglas Lockard

  • Born: August 16, 1926, Chicago, Illinois
  • Died: March 6, 2009

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0365
Interview Date: March 29, 2007
Location: Debus's home, Deerfield, Illinois
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 75
Minutes: 191
Sponsor: Bolton Society
Bolton Society

  Abstract of Interview

Allen Debus was born in Chicago, Illinois, an only child. He grew up in Evanston, a suburb to the north of Chicago, where he attended public schools. Interested in chemicalengineering, he was accepted at Rose-Hulman in Indiana, but anticipating that he would be drafted into the Army, he decided to attend Northwestern University instead so that he could remain at home. Never drafted, he earned a BS in chemistry, with almost enough credits for a second major in history. From there he went to Indiana University as assistant to John Murray, who advised Debus to write his master's thesis on the history of chemistry in the Tudor-Stuart period. Instead, Debus met and married Brunilda Lopez-Rodriguez; both took chemist jobs at Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago, Illinois. 

After working at Abbott for about five years, Debus decided to seek a Ph.D. in the history of science, a field of study in only three schools: Harvard University, University of Wisconsin, and Cornell University. He chose Harvard, where he wrote his dissertation on theEnglish Paracelsians under I. Bernard Cohen. 

He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to University College in London, attracted there by Douglas McKie. He met Walter Pagel, who served as a long-distance dissertation advisor. When Debus returned he gave a paper at a meeting of the History of Science Society, at which Cohen introduced him to Cyril Smith of the University of Chicago. Debus was invited to meet the other faculty at University of Chicago and was then offered an assistant professorship. At that time there had been only seven previous Ph.D.'s granted to history of science students at Harvard, and Debus was one of the first in the history of chemistry, so Debus' appointment wasin the history department. Eventually the Morris Fishbein Center for the Study of the History of Science and Medicine was established at the University, and Debus became its first director. He retained his named chair into his retirement, which occurred in 1996. 

Debus' academic interest has long been 17th century chemistry. Paracelsus and peoplelike him were interested not in making gold from base metals, but in understanding nature through analysis by fire. Debus wanted to study the place of chemistry in the scientificrevolution with materials available to all; to that end he has a large collection of rare books from this time period, a collection he began in the early 1940's. He says that he has about 650 such books, the earliest from 1501. A scholar not just of the Paracelsians but also of vaudeville music, Debus also collects phonograph records dating from the 1890-1930's; of these he has more than 15,000, with 40 machines to play them on. He writes notes for historic compact discs of American popular music. 

Debus has won many prestigious awards in his nearly 40 years at the University of Chicago, and he has published many books and articles. He continues his research and his music-listening at his home in Deerfield, Illinois.


1947 B.S., Chemistry, Northwestern University
1949 A.M., History (assistant to John J. Murray), Indiana University
1961 Ph.D., History of Science (under I.B. Cohen), Harvard University

  Professional Experience

Abbott Laboratories

1951 - 1956 Research and Development Chemist, work on new commercial method for production of Novocaine (U.S. Patent 2,935,525)

Harvard University

1957 - 1959 Teaching Fellowship

University of Chicago

1961 - 1965 Assistant Professor of the History of Science

University of Chicago

1965 - 1968 Associate Professor of the History of Science

University of Chicago

1968 - 1978 Professor of the History of Science

University of Chicago

1971 - 1977 Director, Morris Fishbein Center for the study of the History of Science and Medicine

University of Chicago

1978 - 1996 Morris Fishbein Professor of the History of Science and Medicine

University of Chicago

1996 - 2009 Morris Fishbein Professor Emeritus of the History of Science and Medicine


1957 - 1958 Bowdoin Award in the Natural Sciences
1959 - 1960 Fulbright and Social Science Research Council Fellowship
1960 - 1961 Fels Foundation Fellowship
1961 - 1962 American Philosophical Society Research Grant
1961 - 1963 National Science Foundation Research Grant
1962 - 1970 National Institutes of Health Research Grant
1966 - 1967 Overseas Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge
1966 - 1967 Guggenheim Fellowship
1969 Overseas Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge
1971 - 1974 National Science Foundation Research Grant
1972 - 1973 Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
1974 - 1975 National Institutes of Health Research Grant
1975 - 1976 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, The Newberry Library, Chicago
1977 - 1978 National Science Foundation Research Grant
1977 - 1978 National Institutes of Health Research Grant
1978 Edward Kremers Award of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy
1978 Member, Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Award Committee
1978 Pfizer Book Award, History of Science Society
1980 - 1981 National Science Foundation Research Grant
1980 Member, Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Award Committee
1981 - 1982

Fellow, Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin

1981 - 1983 National Science Foundation Research Grant
1982 Appointed to the International Advisory Committee, the Cohn Institute for the History of Science and Ideas of Tel-Aviv University and the Sidney M. Edelstein Center for the History of Philosophy of Science of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem
1983 Invited Lecturer, University of Coimbra
1984 - 1985 Visiting Distinguished Professor, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Arizona State University
1985 D.Sc., Honorary, Catholic University of Louvain
1985 - 1986 Consultant, Literature and Science Curriculum, Georgia Institute of Technology
1987 NEH Fellow, The Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, D.C.)

Elected Foreign Associate Member, Académico Correspondente Estrangeiro (Classe de Ciências) Académia das Ciências de Lisboa

1987 Dexter Award, American Chemical Society
1988 Member, International Program Committee, Portuguese meeting of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science

Visiting Lecturer, Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici


Visiting Professor, Instituto de Química, Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil

1992 - 1993 Consultant to the History of Medicine Library of the National Library of Medicine for the 500th Anniversary of the birth of Paracelsus
1992 - 1997 National Institutes of Health Research Grant
1993 - 1996 Appointed to the International Advisory Committee, the Cohn Institute for the History of Science and Ideas of Tel Aviv University
1994 Sarton Medal, History of Science Society
1996 Distinguished Lecturer, History of Science Society

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family Background 1

Born in Chicago, Illinois. Raised in Evanston, Illinois. Attends public schools. Some influential teachers.

College Years 3

Admitted to Northwestern University to study engineering. Switched to chemistry. More interested in history. Began master's degree at Indiana University but quit to get married. Worked at Abbott Laboratories.

History of Science Student 5

Decides to attend Harvard University for PhD in history of science. Begins study of English Paracelsians under I. Bernard Cohen. Wins Fulbright to London. Meets Walter Pagel.

University of Chicago 12

Accepts assistant professorship in history department. Gradually changes from teaching undergraduate physics to graduate history. Oriental Institute brings Noel Swerdlow from Yale. Morris Fishbein Center for the Study of the History of Science and Medicine established. Debus named director of Fishbein Center; then has named chair. Continues to collect books, particularly rare books dealing with 17th century alchemy. Also collects records of American popular music from 1890–1940. Discusses his favorite books and records. Pictures of Debus and books. Picture of the Debuses.

Bibliography 60

Index 62

  About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning is professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he was a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and has presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was the foundation’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. He is currently a visiting research scientist and CESAR Fellow at Lehigh University. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.

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