For several weeks in April, there was a new yet familiar face roaming the stacks of the OSU Libraries Special Collections. It was Dr. Burtron “Burt” Davis of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, who had traveled across the country to research his former mentor, Dr. Paul Emmett. Dr. Davis is the first researcher to conduct work in Special Collections under the Resident Scholar Program.
Dr. Davis is a self-described “hillbilly from West Virginia.” He originally wanted to be a teacher so he attended Potomac State College in Keyser, West Virginia, where he earned his associate degree but did not do any research work. He then transferred to West Virginia University and earned his Bachelor of Science in chemistry in 1959. He had originally planned to study agriculture but found that he hated his classes. Needing to pick something as a replacement, he choose chemistry, which he ended up enjoying.
Following his graduation, Davis began working in Philadelphia at Atlantic Refining from 1959-1962, while concurrently taking night classes and earning his Master of Science from St. Joseph’s College (now St. Joseph’s University). When he decided to return to graduate school to earn his doctorate in 1962, he asked a professor for letters of recommendation to four schools. The instructor instead gave him a recommendation to a fifth school, the University of Florida, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1965.
Davis worked under Paul Emmett while completing his post-doctorate research on catalysis at the John Hopkins University from 1965-1966. He then worked for four years (1966-1970) at Mobil, where he discovered a platinum-10 catalyst for converting gasoline from low-octane to high-octane.
In 1970, Davis decided that he would like to teach and accepted a position at Potomac State College as an Associate Professor of Chemistry. After seven years of teaching, Davis felt the urge to return to research and so began working at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, where he remains working full-time to this day. Davis’ scholarly track record is prolific. He is a member of the American Chemical Society, including the divisions of Fuel, Colloid and Surface Chemistry, Petroleum, and History of Chemistry. He is likewise credited with over 400 publications as either an author or a co-author.
Paul Emmett is not the only scientist that Dr. Davis has researched. Indeed, Davis has made a hobby of collecting research on the great scientists of our time and, as he has progressed through his career, he has grown to appreciate and become more interested in history. This appreciation and interest has led him to preserve history. Not long after completing his postdoctoral work, he suggested to the editor of the Journal of Chemical Education that Dr. Emmett be featured in a monthly section the of journal in which a chemist is interviewed. The editor agreed that it should be done but said that he could not conduct the interview himself. In response, Davis chose to take a few days off from his work at Potomac State College, flew to Chicago and interviewed Dr. Emmett. The resulting article can be found in the April 1978 edition of J. of Chem. Ed.
In 1985, the American Chemical Society organized a gathering to honor Dr. Emmett, who unfortunately died during the preparations. Emmett’s death led Dr. Davis to thinking about ways to further document other living scientists. Shortly thereafter he began a project, which continues to this day, of videotaping interviews with and seminars delivered by all manner of scientists. As of now, he has videotaped over 2,000 individuals, including ten Nobel Prize winners. But his interest started with Paul Emmett.
Davis is planning on writing a biography of Dr. Emmett. Through his work in the OSU Libraries Special Collection, he has uncovered new information that has led him to sources and topics about which he had not been previously aware (although Emmett’s own notes appear to be the only resources available to learn about certain aspects of his early life). One particular surprise was learning the degree to which Emmett was such a detailed and organized scientist. Emmett outlined his research as he was taught to outline a speech in his high school- and Oregon Agricultural College debate teams, developing step-by-steps notes on the procedures that he intended to follow. This noted, Emmett evidently did not take notes at meetings. He was blessed with a photographic memory and could easily re-plot a graph that he had seen at a presentation.
Dr. Davis hopes to have his biography published sometime in the next six to twelve months. Please check back on Thursday when we’ll further discuss the life and work of his subject, catalysis chemist Dr. Paul Emmett.