The catalysis chemist Dr. Paul Emmett is one of many distinguished scientists to have attended Oregon State University. He was born in Portland, Oregon on September 22, 1900 to a railroad worker and his wife, and had two sisters. Historian Dr. Burt Davis, who is writing a biography of Emmett’s life, notes that much is unclear about Emmett’s early years. It is known, however, that the family moved a lot due to the demands of working for a railroad. For at least one year, his mother worked as a cook for the railroad and both of his parents lived on one of the train cars.
Dr. Emmett and another of OSU’s hometown science heroes, Dr. Linus Pauling, were classmates in their high school years as well as at Oregon Agricultural College (later to become Oregon State University) and the California Institute of Technology. [Click here for video of Emmett recounting an early chemical experiment in which he and Pauling combined their duel interests in rail tracks and mischief.] In fact, for a year the two men lived together at Caltech, along with Emmett’s mother, and actually shared a bed, which they used sequentially. (Pauling would go to bed around 3 AM, right about the time that Emmett was usually waking up.) According to Dr. Davis, during his graduate study years at Caltech, Emmett suffered from extreme fatigue and was told by a doctor to take short naps after lunch, a practice that he followed for the remainder of his life.
After completing his graduate studies, Emmett taught chemistry at OAC for one year, before moving in 1926 to a research position at the Department of Agriculture’s Fixed Nitrogen Laboratory. There he sought out a better understanding of the mechanisms by which ammonia could be taken out of the air and turned into a fertilizer for plants. Emmett knew that the Germans had developed just such a mechanism during World War I, but scientists did not entirely understand how and why the process worked.
The result of this investigation was the Brunauer-Emmett-Teller (BET) Method, which remains the second-most cited scientific paper on the process and a technique still in use worldwide. The BET Method provides scientists with the ability to measure a variety of properties of gas molecules on a solid surface: the surface area, the composition of the surface, and the amount of catalyst that is both on the surface and in the interior of the solid. Dr. Emmett’s work on the BET Method earned him a Nobel Prize nomination.
After this success and the widespread construction of ammonia plants around the world, the government lost interest in this line of research and, in 1937, Dr. Emmett moved to the Johns Hopkins University. Emmett stayed in the Johns Hopkins chemistry department until 1943, when he joined the Manhattan Project as a manager – not a researcher – and relocated to Columbia University.
The focus of the Columbia laboratory – which was the first of five labs to work on the atomic bomb – was the separation of uranium isotopes. In particular, the laboratory sought to convert uranium into a corrosive gas, uranium hexafluoride, but found that their methods required a material that would not be corroded by the gas. One of Emmett’s men developed a suitable substance, which eventually became the forerunner to today’s Teflon.
It is also worth noting that, while working on the Manhattan Project, Dr. Emmett frequently had lunch with Percival “Dobie” Keith, the Oak Ridge developer who spurred Emmett’s interest in the Fischer-Tropps process, a method used to create synthetic fuels.
In 1944 Dr. Emmett moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the Mellon Institute but continued to consult for the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, which kept him abreast of developments in nuclear reactions – including the isotopes made by such reactions – for the remainder of his career. At the Mellon Institute, Emmett’s research group further refined the Fischer-Tropps process and also introduced the use of carbon isotopes as a means for studying reaction mechanisms and pathways. The Emmett lab’s carbon isotope studies comprised an important contribution to the study of oxygen mechanisms and, in the process, supplanted a theory that had been in place for over thirty years.
In 1955 Emmett returned to the John Hopkins University, this time as a chemistry professor and the W.R. Grace Research Professor and Grace Advisory Board Member. (It was also during this time that his first wife, Lola, died after having become very ill at a doctor’s office in Pittsburgh and subsequently lapsing into a coma for eight months.) Emmett stayed at Johns Hopkins until his retirement in 1971, though he continued on as a consultant at W.R. Grace, visiting three or four times a year from the home that he shared with his sister in Oregon.
For the first year of his “retirement,” Emmett taught chemistry at Oregon State University, thus returning full circle to his first professional appointment. From the following year until his death, Dr. Emmett likewise worked as a research professor at Portland State University. In the mid-1970s, Dr. Emmett married Pauline Pauling, the sister of his old friend, Linus Pauling. Dr. Pauling often visited the couple in their home and Pauline, a very lively woman even in her later years, took care of Dr. Emmett until his death.
Paul Emmett died on April 22, 1985 after a gradual decline brought about by Parkinson’s disease and a brain tumor. Though he spent the final month of his life in a hospital, Emmett steadfastly refused to talk about his health, preferring to discuss fishing and golf instead.
In the estimation of Burt Davis, one “couldn’t find a better person” than Paul Emmett. He is uniformly remembered as a very pleasant and thoughtful man who tended to think the best of everyone.
For more, please visit the Paul Emmett Papers homepage.