This interview was originally published in ChemNews, the newsletter of the Wabash Chemistry Department, edited by Marcia Labbe.




"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 really enjoyed working with the students who needed the most help"


Summer/Fall 2001

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 College?
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 seen?
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 Haenisch’s, has also been a significant change. What hasn’t 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; we’ve 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 I’ve 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. I’m 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. Snow’s “Two Cultures”). We all need both perspectives to grow intellectually.

CN: Let’s finish with some word association. Give me a short answer to the following:
—Favorite Chemist—J. Willard Gibbs
—Favorite Scientists—Galileo, Einstein, Pauling
—Favorite Atom—Hydrogen (since I can solve it)
—Favorite Molecule—Water
—Favorite Mathematical Operator—the differential
—Favorite Greek Letter—Y (what else?)
—Favorite Composer—Brahms
—Favorite Author—Shakespeare
—Favorite Travel Destination—Italy
—Favorite Courses as a Wabash Student—Introductory Chemistry, History of Philosophy, Ordinary Differential Equations
—Favorite Thing to Think About—the connection between Quantum Mechanics and Algebra
—Favorite Thing about Wabash—its Great Spirit

CN: Thanks, Paul. Have a great retirement!

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