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Charles P. Smyth

Charles P. Smyth

CHF Collections

  • Born: February 10, 1895, Clinton, New Jersey
  • Died: March 18, 1990, Bozeman, Montana

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0042
Interview Date: May 30, 1986
Location: Princeton, New Jersey
Interviewers: Jeffrey L. Sturchio and Ronald E. Doel
No. of pages: 81
Minutes: 540

  Abstract of Interview

Charles P. Smyth begins the interview by naming the many scientists in his family and discussing his undergraduate education at Princeton, with descriptions of the curriculum, faculty, and facilities. He then describes his tenure at the National Bureau of Standards and the Chemical Warfare Service, where he worked on electroplating and poison gas during the First World War. Smyth continues with a discussion of his Ph.D. training at Harvard, where his thesis examined thallium amalgams. He then describes his return to Princeton as an instructor, his early teaching and students, and the options he considered for research projects. His work on dipole moment lead to an important discovery about benzene ring structure that proved correct the Kekulé model. He then discusses the funding situation at Princeton and his first visits to Europe, where he meets Peter Debye, Karl Bonhöffer and James Franck. Smyth next discusses department colloquia at Princeton, attempts to recruit Debye and Enrico Fermi to Princeton, and changes in the chemical field during the 1920s and 1930s, including the emergence of chemical physics. The interview ends with a discussion of Smyth's work on deuterium and the Manhattan Project. In the appendix, "Scientist in a Jeep," Smyth narrates a detailed account of his work in the U.S., France and Germany with the ALSOS Mission, which investigated Nazi Germany's scientific capabilities at the end of the Second World War.


1916 A.B., Chemistry, Princeton University
1917 A.M., Chemistry, Princeton University
1921 Ph.D., Chemistry, Harvard University

  Professional Experience

National Bureau of Standards

1917 Chemist

United States Army

1918 Second Lieutenant, Ordnance Reserve Corps

United States Army

1918 Second Lieutenant, Chemical Service Section

United States Army

1918 First Lieutenant, Chemical Warfare Service

Princeton University

1920 - 1923 Instructor

Princeton University

1923 - 1927 Assistant Professor

Princeton University

1927 - 1938 Associate Professor

Princeton University

1938 - 1958 Professor

Princeton University

1958 - 1963 David B. Jones Professor of Chemistry

Princeton University

1963 - 1990 David B. Jones Professor of Chemistry Emeritus


1947 Medal of Freedom, U.S. Army
1954 Nichols Medal, New York Section, American Chemical Society
1970 Honorary Degree (Science honoris causa), July 23, University of Salford, Salford, England

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family and Early and Undergraduate Education 1

Many family members are scientists. Attends the Lawrenceville school and Princeton University in pursuit of a broad education, and enters the chemistry department. Discusses classmates, professors, curriculum and facilities at Princeton.

National Bureau of Standards and Chemical Warfare Service 5

Works on an electroplating project as part of the war effort. Discusses colleagues at the National Bureau of Standards. Becomes second lieutenant in the Army Ordnance Department and works on poison gas. Discusses safety standards and toxic substances. Names the best physical chemists in that era.

Graduate Education at Harvard University 9

Attends Harvard after World War I. Pursues thesis on thallium amalgam project with T. W. Richards. Discusses colleagues and faculty at Harvard.

Early Career at Princeton University 13

Accepts instructorship at Princeton. Teaches freshman lab while completing thesis. Discusses relationships with Karl Compton and William Foster. Research program options of infrared, atom smashing or dielectrics. Students. Chemical physics versus physical chemistry. Early publications on dipole moment. Research expenses, research support, and consulting. Instrument building.

Early Voyages to Europe 21

Travels to Bucharest as the American delegate to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Meets Peter Debye and visits his lab in Leipzig. European colleagues Karl Bonhöffer and James Franck.

Princeton University 23

Studies quantum mechanics with Eugene Wigner. Departmental colloquia with Niels Bohr and Niels Bjerrum. Collaboration with Henry Eyring. Princeton attempts to recruit Debye and Enrico Fermi. Publications on resonance shifts in organic molecules. Collaboration with Kodak.

Chemical Physics in the 1920s and 1930s 29

Princeton is a center for chemical physics in the interwar years. Edits Journal of Chemical Physics. Section for Chemical Physics is started in the American Chemical Society. Organizes a symposium on dielectrics. Students in the interwar years. Deuterium research and the Manhattan Project.

Appendix: "Scientist in a Jeep:" The ALSOS Mission 37

Joins the ALSOS Mission and begins work at the Pentagon. Difficulties in leaving for Europe.

Paris 39

Flight to Paris. Paris and the Royal Monceau hotel in wartime: accommodations, uniforms, food, transportation. German lessons with E. C. Kemble. Incendiary investigations with Louis Fieser at the Pouderie Nationale.

The Rhineland 45

Crosses into Germany. First headquarters and Easter services at Aachen. Investigates the Physical Institute at Cologne. Explores the Rhine district. Explains that ALSOS civilian scientists were unarmed. Crosses the Rhine at Frankfurt on a pontoon bridge. Interrogates Dr. Czerny. Searches for Schumacher. Cinema in Frankfurt, "wine liberation" in Aachen and squab near Cologne. Wetzlar, Giessen, Marburg and Kassel.

Göttingen 55

Interrogates four prominent professors at the University of Göttingen and offered the rectorship of the university. Discovers headquarters of the German National Research Council at Merseburg. Finds German supply of heavy water at Osterode.

Leipzig 61

Visits Debye's former lab in Leipzig. Interviews Hund and Doepple at the University of Leipzig. Recalls earlier visit to Leipzig when Hitler stayed in same hotel. Encounters Nazi tank column and finds supply of uranium yellow cake in Stassfurt. Interrogates Paul Harteck about his work on isotope separation. War ends. Visits Karl Bonhöffer, whose bishop brother was assassinated by the Nazis. Finds Gestapo scientific papers in buried urns in the Harz region.

Notes 70

Index 72

  About the Interviewer

Jeffrey L. Sturchio

Jeffrey L. Sturchio is president and CEO of the Global Health Council. Previously he served as vice president of corporate responsibility at Merck & Co., president of the Merck Company Foundation, and chairman of the U.S. Corporate Council on Africa. Sturchio is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Applied Economics and the Study of Business Enterprise at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Healthy Next Generation of the World Economic Forum. He received an A.B. in history from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Ronald E. Doel

Ronald E. Doel received a B.A. in English and astronomy from Northwestern University, an M.A. in American studies from Bowling Green State University, and a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. He was postdoctoral historian at the Center for the History of Physics from 1990 to 1993, and postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution in 1993–1994. He has taught history and history of science at the University of Maryland.

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