Memorial gathering for Al Matlack–April 26th

matlack

Delaware has lost another exceptional citizen:  Al Matlack died unexpectedly on Nov 4th, 2013, at the age of 90.  He’d just finished a book.

A memorial gathering will be held at the Ashland Nature Center (Delaware Nature Society) on Saturday, April 26th, beginning at 1:00 pm.

“This will be a celebration of Dad’s life, his causes and his friendships. We will speak briefly to kick things off, then we encourage Dad’s gathered friends to take the floor and give thoughts, tell anecdotes or discuss his causes….”

Albert S. Matlack received his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1950.

“Upon arriving in Delaware he married Elsie Foulsham, daughter of a cook and a gardener at Winterthur [Winterthur was one of the estates of plutocrat Henry Francis du Pont]. They met at a square dance and were married for 60 years and two months. She survives him.”  Matlack is also survived by his two sons Kent and Glenn.

Matlack had a very successful career in polymer chemistry, earning over 130 patents.  He worked at Hercules–a company spun off from DuPont in 1912–for 43 years and was associated with the product Metton (polydicyclopentadiene).  After retiring from Hercules he taught Industrial Chemistry, and then Green Chemistry, as an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware.

“Green chemistry, also called sustainable chemistry, is a philosophy of chemical research and engineering that encourages the design of products and processes that minimize the use and generation of hazardous substances.  Whereas environmental chemistry is the chemistry of the natural environment, and of pollutant chemicals in nature, green chemistry seeks to reduce and prevent pollution at its source.” (Wikipedia)

Matlack was a pioneer of “green chemistry,” publishing one of the first books on the subject, “Introduction to Green Chemistry,” in 2001.  A second edition was published in 2010.  At the time of his death he had just completed a third book, “Problem-Based Learning in Green Chemistry,” co-authored with Andrew P. Dicks of the University of Toronto.  He inspired thousands of students of chemistry to take a broader, more enlightened view of the role of chemistry in a sustainable world.   I wonder what Matlack thought of the emergence of the “American Chemistry Council“–Ex Chemical Manufacturers Association, ex Manufacturing Chemists’ Association–as one of the most evil and dishonest (additional descriptors available on request) industrial lobby organizations on our stressed-out planet.

Matlack was one of Delaware’s foremost environmentalists, doing much of his work through the Society of Natural History of Delaware, of which he was long time president.  As far as I know, Matlack did his advocacy “within the system.”  He wrote thousands of well-informed, well-reasoned letters to elected officials and others.  It is not easy to evaluate the impact of this work on a political system that often seems immune to factual argument, but the cumulative impact must have been substantial.  Al was old-school in his habits of communication and I have few examples of his advocacy work to link to.  If possible, we will post examples of his correspondence on greendel.org.

Matlack was the 2003 recipient of the Delaware Audubon Society Conservation Award.  He reportedly said “the most recycled thing in Delaware is excuses.”

Al Matlack was a person who marched to the beat of his own drummer.  At least in his later years, he seemed to care little about the keeping up conventional appearances.  He was one of Delaware’s most interesting and valuable residents.

This obituary was provided by his son Kent:

As we reported last month, Dr. Albert S. Matlack, a well known presence in the field of green chemistry and a fixture at green chemistry conferences for the past two decades, died early in November. He died suddenly, apparently without premonition, and only days after finishing yet another book related to green chemistry. In the last three months of his life, Dr. Matlack celebrated both his 90th birthday and his 60th wedding anniversary. Green chemistry conferences were a highlight of his retirement years because meeting others who shared his interests energized him. He found it particularly rewarding to see young people devoting themselves to the field.

Green chemistry combined my father’s two passions: chemistry and the environment. His interest in both was central and started early. His own father was a chemist at the Department of Agriculture in Washington DC from the 1920s to the 1960s and must have passed his interest on to his son quickly – once, when digging through boxes in the attic of my grandfather’s house, I came upon an essay of my father’s describing his intention of becoming a chemist – written at the age of 13. No possible alternatives were mentioned. My father’s son – me – is also a chemist. His grandfather, however, was a Victorian era phrenologist – someone who “evaluates” personality traits and intrinsic talents based on the position of bumps on the skull – so it cannot be honestly stated that critical, objective science runs in the family.

While he was growing up, my father was surrounded by plants. His family lived in Arlington, Virginia, on a two acre piece of land near the banks of the Potomac River situated at what was then the outer edge of suburbia (although only about three miles from the White House, then occupied by Franklin Roosevelt). Unbroken woodland, free of No Trespassing signs, stretched upstream all the way to West Virginia. On his own land, Dad’s father grew ornamental plants and turned his property into a miniature arboretum, including a bamboo grove and a trail system passing through several miniaturized climatic zones. Dad took to plants and their cultivation with the same focus he did to chemistry, to such an extent that his mother, on meeting her soon-to-be daughter-in-law for the first time, felt the need to explain that “he just loves diggin’ in the dirt”.

In 1940, Dad entered the University of Virginia. There he, of course, majored in chemistry and had the misfortune to be deprived of most of his summer vacations due to the advent of World War II. Drafted immediately after graduation, the Army (with considerable encouragement from my grandfather) identified him as a chemist and sent him first to Oak Ridge and later to Los Alamos, the United States’ two main military sites devoted to the secret atomic weapons program. On August 5, 1945, while stationed at Oak Ridge, Dad was given the task of stapling together the pages of a press release to be distributed the next day. Decades later he couldn’t remember the exact wording, but it ran along the lines of “This morning, Allied air forces dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima a new type of weapon of unprecedented strength…” Thus, my father learned of the dawn of the nuclear age several hours before the unfortunate residents of Hiroshima.

At Los Alamos, Dad worked with plutonium (possibly explaining my idiosyncracies), possibly outdoing in daily level of hazard his roommate, who machined the convex lenses of conventional explosives that served as detonators for the atomic weapons. Security at Los Alamos was both tight and highly bureaucratic, leading to bizarre situations. As a 22 year old enlisted man and not officially a scientist, my father was officially unaware of the existence of plutonium and did not have the required level of security clearance to read the reports that he himself had written. To do so would have been a federal offense.

The war over when Dad arrived at Los Alamos, activity there was winding down. Thousands of people there were still military personnel, however, and couldn’t leave until discharged, placing the staff in the position of having to find ways to occupy themselves. The solution was to have the big shots give lectures, giving Dad the opportunity to hear lectures by Oppenheimer, Teller, Kistiakowsky and others, all among the biggest names in 20th century physics and chemistry. How much he understood of what they said he never mentioned, nor did he ever mention what New Mexican dirt was like.

Sprung from the army in 1946, Dad went on to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where we have a picture of him doing benchwork while wearing a tie. In general, throughout this period and well into the 1950s, he was clean shaven, well groomed and remarkably well dressed, a revelation that I suspect will surprise many who have seen him at green chemistry conferences over the last 20 or so years.

Upon receiving his degree in 1950, Dad moved to Wilmington, Delaware (“Chemical Capital of the World”) to work for Hercules. He remained at Hercules until 1993 working in polymer, pigment and organometallic chemistry and being frustrated almost continuously by small minded management. For a number of years his lab was adjacent to that of Dick Heck, the 2010 Nobel laureate in chemistry for work he was doing at the time. As it turned out, Hercules was the only paying job my father ever held, with the exception of one summer in college spent as a sales clerk at Hecht’s, a Washington DC department store. One fringe benefit of work at Hercules was eating lunch each day with his colleagues. As far as I can tell, their lunchtime conversations were Dad’s only contact with common culture; in the 1970s, I once made a bet with a friend that my father would not know who Johnny Carson was, and considered myself as having lost when he could identify him as “Some sort of entertainer, isn’t he?”

Soon after arriving in Delaware, Dad purchased about 20 acres of woodland and set to work making it his home. The first task was to clear a path for a half mile long driveway, which he did by himself with an axe over a period of several months while also re-indulging his passion for dirt. Over five decades he turned this property into his own version of his parents’ property, with particular emphasis on protecting the native vegetation from what he called “invasive exotics”. Chief among them was Japanese honeysuckle, a rapidly growing groundcover that thrived in Delaware, with the potential to smother the native wildflowers. Having grown up near Washington DC in the era of romanticized G-men, Dad referred to it as “public enemy number one”, and over the course of about 30 years cleared 22 acres of it by manually pulling it while on his hands and knees amid the trees. While doing this near a road that bounded his property, he was twice mistaken as homeless by passing motorists and offered money. By my calculations, he must have spent thousands of hours engaged in this activity, which for some reason was best done in the winter when the temperature was just above freezing and the ground wet. It wasn’t until I was an adult that it occurred to me to ask him what he thought about during all that time, usually alone and in such miserable conditions. His one word answer: “experiments”.

To say that my father was passionate about chemistry is an understatement. I remember learning about protein denaturation at about the age of five when my father was scrambling eggs. And he was always reading. JACS, JOC, Angewandte Chemie, Tet Letters… [links added by Muller] all were part of my childhood. A four inch stack of journals next to father’s place at our dinner table was standard, as was an issue of the New Scientist or C&E News waiting at my own place at breakfast with articles highlighted for my enjoyment. At my high school graduation, as soon as the ceremony was over and while most of the audience gathered to speak to the new graduates, Dad remained in his seat and pulled out JACS. In college, when he met me at the airport, I would come out of the gate and there he would be, reading. Once, after not having seen me for months, his greeting was “That last paper didn’t have adequate controls”.

I don’t know when my father’s interests in chemistry and the environment converged, but I know that he was an environmentalist before the term was coined. I know that he could clearly see the effect humanity was having on the planet and that it bothered him a great deal, so to begin thinking about how he could put his interests and expertise to use to help was a natural step. I believe that he had been compiling material about chemistry and its impact on the environment for a decade or more before he retired, and that it was a great relief and the fulfillment of a dream when his retirement finally allowed him the time to compile it all into a book.

Anyone who met him at a green chemistry meeting knows that my father was a bit of an eccentric and concerned himself little with appearances. There is simply no avoiding that. My interactions with people in the field, however, suggest that they also know that he was a kind, good-natured, unbelievably well informed, and passionately and relentlessly constructive man. Despite his age he was current, and often ahead of the curve, and intended to stay that way. In my life, I literally never saw him rest. There were problems of global significance to be solved; how could anyone not devote their time and effort to doing so?

My impression of my father is epitomized by two quotes from his life. Once, for whatever reason, we were discussing how people choose whether or not to donate their bodies for research when they die. His comment was “Why wouldn’t you? It’s about the last useful thing you can do.” And, on another occasion, when for some reason we were discussing history as an occupation, his reflection was “Some people are interested in the past. I’m interested in the future”. Then, I suspect, he went back to reading or writing, or resumed attacking honeysuckle.

Al Matlack, it seems to me, was a most fortunate guy.  He was endowed with an exceptional intellect, and the focus, discipline, and resources to use it.  He chose to use it for the benefit of us all.  He died at the age of ninety, fully engaged in his passions.  He brought honor to his profession and his adopted state.  R.I.P.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *