Carl Shipp Marvel

Carl Marvel wearing a polybenzimidazole (PBI) vest, 1968. Gift of John T. and Mollie Marvel, CHF Collections.

Carl Shipp Marvel (1894–1988) was born on a small farm in Illinois. His uncle, a high school teacher, urged him to study science rather than become a farmer, reasoning that the next generation of farmers would need scientific knowledge to succeed. Marvel fell in love with chemistry at Illinois Wesleyan University and went on to graduate school at the University of Illinois, where he earned the nickname “Speed” from his habit of rushing to breakfast after studying all night. His studies were interrupted by World War I, during which he worked under Professor Roger Adams in a lab set up at the university to make fine chemicals that had, until then, been imported from Germany. Upon obtaining his doctoral degree in 1920, Marvel was hired as an instructor at Illinois, where he stayed until retiring as a full professor in 1961. He then moved to the University of Arizona for another quarter century.

Carl Marvel (right) and his colleague and friend Wallace Carothers caught this muskelunge on a fishing trip to Squaw Lake in Wisconsin, circa 1935. Carl Marvel Archives, CHF Collections.

During his student years at Illinois, Marvel was a close associate of fellow student Wallace Carothers, and he later worked with Carothers as a consultant for DuPont, when Carothers was carrying out his groundbreaking work on polymerization. Confirming Hermann Staudinger’s suggestions, Marvel correctly showed exactly how vinyl monomers tend to add to the growing polymer that forms polyvinyl chloride (PVC). He participated significantly in the U.S. synthetic rubber program when supplies of natural rubber were disrupted during World War II. After the war, he developed polybenzimidazoles (PBIs), temperature-resistant polymers used in the aerospace industry and as a replacement for asbestos in all manner of applications.

In 1986 Marvel’s many years of faithful and productive service to his profession and his country were rewarded with the National Medal of Science. Marvel loved his hobbies almost as much as his chemistry. He was a dedicated bird-watcher and an enthusiastic fresh- and salt-water fisherman. Carothers was among his fishing buddies.

Carl Marvel, bird-watching at Ocean City, Maryland, May 4, 1975. Carl Marvel Archives, CHF Collections.

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The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@

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