CMU Mellon Institute Designated as Chemistry Landmark

Mar 28, 2013

An institute formed in 1913 to help support basic chemistry research in Pittsburgh has been given Historic Landmark Status by the American Chemical Society. The Mellon Institute, which was eventually absorbed into Carnegie Mellon University, was recognized in a small ceremony Thursday for the work that went on inside its walls between the two great wars.

Every year the ACS Landmarks Committee chooses two to four institutes or landmarks for the designation. This year, the committee decided to recognize the Mellon Institute for what was then an unusual approach to industrial research.

“Up until then there had not been much industrial chemical research done in this country,” said ACS Landmarks Committee chair William Oliver. “Germany was the great leader up until about World War I, and the recognition that this country needed to do that and have an institute like this was really significant.”

The institute would take on fellows who were funded by companies wanting to do basic research or build upon products they were already using. CMU chemistry professor emeritus Guy Berry says some great names passed through the institute, and some lasting discoveries were made. 

Among the first to make a mark was George Curme, who did research into ethylene glycol.

“There are a lot of uses for ethylene glycol," Berry said. "One of them is as an antifreeze in automobiles, and as you may know, automobiles were becoming very important in the '20s when this was all done. Curme actually received a medal from the ACS years later which honored him as the father, grandfather and great grandfather of ethylene chemistry.”

Technically Berry was not in the institute’s building. He was relegated to a shack outside of the building because he was working with highly explosive compounds.

A great deal of research into the uses of silicone was also done at the institute in its early years. Whenever you open a tube of silicone adhesive or caulk you should think about Earl Warrick.

“He bought a house — it was wintertime — and found that his windows were leaking so he wanted to seal them, and the caulking of the day did not work well at low temperatures…." Berry said. "So he said 'Let me try this (experimental silicone adhesive) on my windows,' and it worked very well.”

Along with a plaque and a listing on the ACS website, the society will honor the institute by building a high school chemistry curriculum that focuses on the work that came out of the institute. The landmark status recognizes the institute’s work from its inception to the end of World War II.