First Person: Hubert N. Alyea

Hubert N. Alyea.

Hubert Alyea. Image courtesy of Hubert Alyea, CHF Collections.

The Oral History Program is excited to introduce “First Person,” a new series on the Periodic Tabloid. Every month First Person will highlight one of the over 400 oral histories in CHF's collection. This month: Hubert N. Alyea, a character who may be more familiar than you realize.

Hubert Alyea is not a household name, but The Absent-Minded Professor of movie fame certainly is. The former Princeton University professor, it turns out, was the inspiration for this iconic character. 

How did this happen? At the Brussels World Exposition in 1958, Alyea gave a lecture called “Atomic Energy, Weapon for Peace,” about the grave threat of nuclear weapons and the peaceful possibilities of nuclear energy. Between 1945 and 1965, Alyea estimated that he gave this lecture almost 3,000 times. In Brussels alone, he gave the lecture six times a day, six days a week, for six months. On one of these occasions he had an unusual listener: Walt Disney. Alyea explained, “As he watched me do my chemical experiments he remembered a script, The Absent-Minded Professor, and the idea came to him to have Fred MacMurray act like me.”

It’s no surprise Alyea would be the model for a dynamic character. Nicknamed “Dr. Boom,” he travelled around the world giving chemistry demonstrations and taught chemistry in his own home to non-scientist Princeton students on Wednesday nights. However, Alyea was best known for his classroom lecture demonstrations. Alyea began publishing his demonstrations in the Journal of Chemical Education in 1951, and by 1970 he had published over 6,000.

Soon after hearing Alyea’s lecture, Disney brought him to Hollywood. Alyea gave chemistry lectures to actors and Disney employees, and together they planned and prepared the character of the Absent-Minded Professor. Despite the success of the film, few today know of Alyea’s influence; at Alyea’s request neither his name nor his institution of Princeton University was mentioned in the film.

Alyea may have been worried about any absent-minded associations resulting from the film, but the character he created with Disney was more than just slapstick. As Disney himself said, “’He was not an absent-minded professor but a single-minded professor.’ … You left the movie thinking, ‘Hey, he was on the ball wasn't he?  He was the only one in that one-horse town who was doing something interesting.’”    

Posted In: Education | History

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