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HENRY GILMAN: IOWA STATE'S MASTER CHEMIST
MAY 9, 1893 - NOVEMBER 7, 1986
There was some excitement among the young women on campus when a bespectacled Henry Gilman arrived in 1919. Here was a fine catch, a Harvard boy in his late twenties who had recently studied in Europe.
Turned out, Gilman was a fine catch for Iowa State. He became one of the greats in organic chemistry and his work contributed significantly to the modern plastics industry. He published 1,020 research papers, 584 of which appeared after 1947 when he became mostly blind.
He churned out exceptionally well-trained Ph.D. students – a count in 1976 showed that more than 50 of his former students were chemistry professors and 50 held key positions in the corporate world.
Among Gilman’s graduate students were at least eight African Americans. It was no coincidence. Gilman was a proponent of civil rights and long before the practice was accepted, he recruited black students to do graduate work at Iowa State. Gilman’s student Nathaniel O. Calloway was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. west of the Mississippi, in 1933.
Through Calloway and other former students, Gilman developed ties with historically black colleges and universities such as Fisk and Tuskegee.
In a career that spanned six decades, Gilman influenced hundreds of would-be chemists in the classroom. He traveled the world to give lectures, won numerous awards, and received some of the highest honors in chemistry, including the highest in the U.S., the Priestly Medal from the American Chemical Society.
Yet even with the awards and international recognition – he was called legendary, inspirational and “The Master Chemist,” to name a few – people say he never changed. He remained the same Henry Gilman: generous, kind, hard-working, and with an undiminished enthusiasm for chemistry. He continued to do research until he was 82 years old.
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About the Writer | Samantha Beres is a communications specialist with ISU's University Relations department.