I Became an Electroanalytical Chemist 1
Dennis H. Evans
Originally published in SEAC Communications, 14(3), October 1998
In the autumn of my sophomore year (1957) we were all shocked to learn that the Soviet Union had launched the first manmade object to orbit the earth, Sputnik. Suddenly what was once just a hypothetical high school physics problem had become a reality and this new technical achievement engendered the political necessity of "catching up with the Russians". Now my nascent interest in science was nurtured and strengthened by the awareness that I could not only have fun but also be wonderfully patriotic at the same time.
To me, chemistry was much more fun than physics so I set out to become a chemistry major with a minor in economics because I had no idea whether one could actually make a living doing chemistry. The faculty at Ottawa did an excellent job in teaching the fundamentals. This was in part necessitated by the fact that the practical aspects of (then) modern chemistry were largely out of reach due to the lack of equipment at the school. Analytical chemistry was my least favorite topic (a semester of gravimetric analysis followed by a semester of volumetric analysis was enough to douse my original enthusiasm) and Instrumental Analysis was that in name only (virtually no instruments in the laboratory). We did try to build a polarograph with a slidewire voltage divider and dry cells but that was largely an exercise in futility.2
When it came time to consider graduate school, I was advised by the faculty that the best school to attend was Kansas University, just twenty miles up the road in Lawrence. I thought that to be an excellent idea but to hedge my bets I applied to many other schools hoping that I could get into at least a few. To my surprise, I was admitted to them all and they even agreed to pay me to go to school, a radical new idea to this country boy! Still, it seemed most fitting and proper for me to go to KU so I drove up to visit the department. Ralph Adams must have been there at the time but I was introduced only to the organic faculty as I had checked the organic box on my application form. One of the faculty I met was Albert Burgstahler, a recent Harvard Ph.D. When Burgstahler learned that I had been admitted to Harvard inter alia, he did what I have never seen a faculty member do before or since—he insisted that I must accept the Harvard offer and turn down KU, his own institution!
Burgstahler was quite persuasive and, besides, I always liked to try something different and Cambridge was certainly different from Kansas! Once at Harvard, I got off to a good start and started interviewing the organic faculty. Unfortunately, Woodward was completely inaccessible and Fieser was not taking students at the time. This left Westheimer, Bartlett and the newly hired E.J. Corey as possibilities but, frankly, I didn't like any of them and, besides, organic chemistry appeared to be a lot less fun and too competitive for my taste. On a whim, I walked over from Converse Lab (where the organic folks hung out) to Coolidge Lab which was the private domain of J.J. Lingane. There I had a very pleasant talk with Professor Lingane who laid out an extremely appealing research plan and from that point on, I was hooked.
[I said there would be more about Ottawa University. Here it is. The Dean of the Graduate School at Harvard, one J.P.(?) Elder, was of the habit of interviewing each Harvard Fellowship holder so an appointment was made for me to meet the dean. After introducing himself, Dean Elder started by saying, "Mr. Evans, we at Harvard are always happy to welcome Canadian students to our university". In keeping with my general shyness and high level of insecurity, I didn't have the nerve to correct him so he never knew that it was Ottawa, Kan., not Ottawa, Can.!]
Two of us first-year students, Michael Morris and I, entered Professor Lingane's group that year. We joined Dennis Peters and Thomas Blackburn who were already well into their thesis research. In that period, the subject of investigation was solid electrodes and the technique du jour was chronopotentiometry. We each had a metal. Peters had platinum (extending the work of a previous Lingane student, Fred Anson), Blackburn had palladium (long before cold fusion) and mine was gold. Professor Lingane (or J.J., as he was informally called by the students) suggested that I should start by determining the mechanism of oxygen reduction at gold. I worked on this for about a year, learned as much as I thought was worthwhile, wrote a paper, then turned to other projects. The draft of the paper, submitted to J.J. on a Friday, was returned to me, heavily annotated in red ink, the following Monday. Then followed an afternoon in which J.J. and I sat side-by-side, dissecting my poor manuscript word-by-word until J.J. was satisfied that everything was expressed in the clearest and most concise form possible. This experience was one of the most valuable parts of my education. And I thought I knew how to write!
Lingane was wonderfully liberal about allowing us students to carry out any kind of project that seemed interesting. Of the six publications emanating from my Ph.D. studies, only three bore his name as co-author. Perhaps wisely, he didn't choose to associate his name with the somewhat shaky results of fledgling chemists like myself but, at the same time, he didn't insist on adding his name to work that was not his own, a trait that was (and is) not universal.3
I cannot leave the Lingane era without referring to J.J.'s theory of the "chemical basis of electrode potential". Almost every day Professor Lingane would stroll into the single large research lab we students shared, sit down with each of us individually, and talk chemistry. Usually these conversations involved the student's recent progress (or lack thereof) in research or some of J.J.'s recent research (Professor Lingane always had a project or two of his own underway). However, sometimes the conversations turned to some of Lingane's pet theories. One of these was the "chemical basis of electrode potential". The hypothesis was so constructed: First, all electrode potentials are established through the half reaction comprising the metal of the electrode and its metallic ions in solution (as with the Ag/Ag+ couple). Second, when an "inert" electrode such as platinum is being used, say, for indicating the potential of the Fe3+/Fe2+ couple, the electrode potential is again established by the couple comprising platinum metal and the tiny concentration of aquo platinous ions in equilibrium with the iron couple. Professor Lingane would ask us to devise experiments to test this hypothesis and seemingly endless discussion would ensue about the merits of the various ideas we students put forth. To this day, I do not know whether J.J. was really serious about this rather strange notion of the "chemical basis of electrode potential" or whether he simply wanted to teach us to think deeply about a chemical problem. It certainly had the latter effect!
In late 1963, J.J. suggested that I could begin to look for a job. The job market at that time was amazing. Every university seemed to be expanding its chemistry program and we students had the luxury of multiple job interviews and, often, several offers of employment. I was fortunate enough to have offers from three excellent universities (Pennsylvania, Florida and Kansas) but something told me I could do better. (I can't believe I was so picky!). So, I stayed on at Harvard in the strictly temporary position of Instructor in Chemistry and waited until 1966 when an opening appeared at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
When the offer came from Madison, I was elated. The interview had made a great impression on me and I was eager to become a part of what was already a great department and also one that had ambitious plans for the future. Irv Shain was the analytical guru there and he assured me that the faculty in analytical chemistry, six at the time, was eventually destined to become a group of ten. So I set out to develop a research program in electroanalytical chemistry. My efforts in Cambridge had been almost entirely in inorganic electrochemistry using solid (mostly gold) electrodes. At the end, I began to dabble in organic reactions and in Madison I vowed that I would never again do anything as boring as inorganic electrochemistry and I would eschew solid electrodes forever. I more or less adhered to the former intention but the latter soon bit the dust when it became obvious that there were lots of things one couldn't do with mercury electrodes.
My appointment as Assistant Professor at Madison came at a time when postdoctoral experience was rare among newly minted analytical chemists. Consequently, my background was not nearly as broad as I would have liked. Irv Shain was an expert in electroanalytical theory and instrumentation. His group even constructed their own general-purpose electroanalytical instrumentation based on operational amplifiers (Philbrick was the brand to use), something that was just getting started at Harvard, mainly through the efforts of Instructors like Barry Miller4 and Ed Moorhead. I realized that I really needed to get up to speed in this area and I was unbelievably lucky to have Irv Shain as a colleague. In many ways, Irv was the postdoctoral mentor that I had missed having and he was responsible for teaching me most of what I know about electroanalytical theory and instrumentation.
So that's how I became an electroanalytical chemist. I was asked to provide a reminiscence about the early days and that is what I have concentrated upon. However, I must acknowledge all of my graduate student and postdoctoral coworkers, both in Madison and later at the University of Delaware, who were the real driving force to bring my feeble beginnings in electroanalytical chemistry to the present level. My heartiest thanks to all of them.
1) I must dedicate this short article to my friend Debra Rolison whose gentle pressure has finally resulted in this much-postponed reminiscence of my early days in electroanalytical chemistry. I find that I become a bit maudlin when writing a piece of this sort and for this I apologize in advance.
2) Ottawa University continues to this day to be a thriving institution. It is much larger than the school I knew and has developed a strong reputation in training students for careers in public service. More about Ottawa can be found at http://www.ott.edu.
3) For more about life in the Lingane group, particularly concerning Professor Lingane's interesting views on instrumentation, see "Some Personal Recollections of my Experiences in Electroanalytical Chemistry" by Fred C. Anson. (http://seac.tufts.edu/Anson.html).
4) See the statement of Reilley Award winner, Barry Miller (to-be-linked to Barry's statement, when and if it's ready).
Anna Brajter-Toth (University of Florida), organizer—Introductory Remarks
Royce W. Murray (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill)—Presentation of the 1993 Reilley Award
AWARD ADDRESS: Dennis H. Evans (University of Delaware)—Chemical Reactions Associated with Electron Transfer: Nitroalkanes to Bucky Balls
William Geiger, Jr. (University of Vermont)—A New Twist to an Old Square Scheme: An Effective Homogeneous Cross-Reaction
Robert W. Corn (University of Wisconsin)—Optical Second Harmonic Generation Studies of Electrochemical Liquid-Liquid Surfaces
AWARD ADDRESS: Leonidas G. Bachas (University of Kentucky)—New Approaches to Highly Selective Potentiometric Sensors
AWARD ADDRESS: Werner G. Kuhr (University of California-Riverside)—Measurement of Stimulated Glutamate Release with Enzyme-Modified Carbon Fiber Microelectrodes
Daniel A. Buttry (University of Wyoming)—Measurement of Electric Fields at Electrode Surfaces