An Interview with Professor Paul McKinney
by Professor Richard Dallinger
At the conclusion of the 2000-2001 academic year, Paul
C. McKinney 52 retired after 45 years of service to the Wabash College
and the Chemistry Department. Paul recently sat down with ChemNews
to talk about his career in chemistry. Here are some of his comments.
CN: How did you decide to come to Wabash as a student in 1948?
PM: My great uncle and uncle were Wabash graduates. My dad wanted
me to be a lawyer. I was undecided about a course of study, and Wabash
seemed like a good place to explore different ideas.
CN: What are your memories of your chemistry courses at Wabash?
PM: I took general chemistry with Ed Haenisch as a sophomore, and
I decided to be a chemistry major after that course. I became a pre-med,
which resulted in my taking five labs a week as a junior (including two
afternoons a week with Doc Howell in the organic lab). I was admitted
to IU Medical School in the fall of my senior year, but I decided to go
to graduate school instead.
CN: Where did you go to graduate school?
PM: Northwestern was the best place I was admitted to; they had
a very accomplished faculty, especially in my chosen area of physical
chemistry. I felt very well prepared for graduate work; I even tested
out of part of the quantitative analysis course requirement. I was a first
year assistant to Professor Gordon Barrow at the downtown campus, and
we always talked on the car trips between Evanston and downtown. I decided
to work with Barrow for my Ph.D.
CN: What was it like to return to Wabash as a teacher in 1956?
PM: After Northwestern, I spent a year in Freiburg, Germany, as
a Fulbright Scholar with Professor Mecke, an experimental infrared spectroscopist.
I mostly took classes and read, and I was still taking Northwestern exams
while I was in Germany. When I returned to Wabash, I primarily taught
in the Physics Chemistry with Ed Haenisch and Lew Salter. This was a rigorous,
calculus-based course required of all Wabash students! I knew every student
on campus as a result of teaching PhysChem, and I really enjoyed working
with students who needed the most help. This was a time nationally when
teaching physics and chemistry together was emerging and more physical
chemistry ideas were finding their way into general chemistry courses.
CN: What are your favorite memories as teacher and Dean of the
PM: I enjoyed teaching Contemporary Civilization (which
was the predecessor, in a way, to the present Cultures and Traditions
course). This course had been started by a Wabash alum at Columbia and
was brought to Wabash in 1927 by President Hopkins. I was involved in
the development of C&T, helping develop the first reading list and
giving the first ever C&T lecture! I also enjoyed helping the strugglers
in PhysChem make it. It took some students, even very good students, several
times to pass the course. It was a form of intellectual sadism
but it was also a distinct Wabash rite of passage to pass PhysChem. I
also worked on, and still would like to see, Wabash develop a program
emphasizing China. The ancient Chinese were very creative and developed
important philosophical, scientific and technological ideas.
CN: What changes in the Department and in the College have you
PM: The most significant change has been in the emphasis of research
as part of the education of Wabash students and the development of Wabash
faculty. Chemical instrumentation has made great changes in how chemistry
is taught, and of course computers have allowed faculty and students to
visualize processes in three dimensions and perform computations that
were either impossible or horribly time-consuming when I was a student.
The library collection to support teaching and research, a pet project
of Ed Haenischs, has also been a significant change. What hasnt
changed? Well, the Grignard reaction for one. It was my favorite organic
chemistry experiment. Also, some remnants of the old Phys/Chem course
can still be found in General Chemistry, most notably the Dalton/Avogadro
synthesis. Certainly the faculty still cares deeply about the education
of Wabash students.
CN: What are the best things about the Chemistry Department, and
what does its future hold?
PM: The people are far and away the best thing about the Department.
The faculty have high standards and are totally dedicated to teaching
and research. The faculty find a way to make things work even when they
disagree; the civility with which the Department decides major issues
should be a model for other departments. The Department cares about the
intellectual development of its faculty, who do a marvelous job teaching
outside the Department. The chemistry students have been outstanding,
and I am proud of their distinguished accomplishments. Finally, the staff
have been first rate; weve been very fortunate to have so many wonderful
people working in the storeroom and in the Chemistry office. The future?
I think that the new Chemistry/Biology building will be a great source
of energy for the Department, and the already strong one-on-one relationships
between faculty and students will be further enhanced. I think that teaching
in the same building as the Biology Department will have immense benefits.
Things look good!
CN: What is the secret to being such an outstanding teacher for
so many years?
PM: Every year Ive taught I have learned something new about
my subject. As long as you keep learning, teaching is exciting. We share
some things, me and my students. Im basically a person with a confused
mind [Ed. note We disagree!], so I always try to examine the assumptions
inherent in any topic from a new point of view. For example, this summer
I am working on a problem that my Ph.D. thesis advisor suggested to me
48 years ago; the problem vexed me for all those years, and now I have
found a new way to think about it, and I am making great progress! I let
the fundamental theories of chemistry and physics tell me how to proceed.
CN: Next year you are going to be Chair of C&T (some retirement!).
What are your plans for C&T?
PM: C&T is a very important course at the College. It is the
one place where we have true community, with all of the sophomores and
a goodly number of faculty participating in the course. It is a place
where many students learn to accept ownership of ideas it is a
course of strong intellectual growth. I am going to try to instill a sense
of ownership in the course among the faculty; they need to believe that
it is their course if C&T is to flourish. I also look
forward to helping bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences
(C. P. Snows Two Cultures). We all need both perspectives
to grow intellectually.
CN: Lets finish with some word association. Give me a short
answer to the following:
Favorite ChemistJ. Willard Gibbs
Favorite ScientistsGalileo, Einstein, Pauling
Favorite AtomHydrogen (since I can solve it)
Favorite Mathematical Operatorthe differential
Favorite Greek LetterY (what else?)
Favorite Travel DestinationItaly
Favorite Courses as a Wabash StudentIntroductory Chemistry,
History of Philosophy, Ordinary Differential Equations
Favorite Thing to Think Aboutthe connection between Quantum
Mechanics and Algebra
Favorite Thing about Wabashits Great Spirit
CN: Thanks, Paul. Have a great retirement!
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