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The Problem Solver

June 2024
1min read

I remember him in 1962 half-walking, half-jogging over to my table at the MIT faculty club for our luncheon engagement. Warren K. (“Doc”) Lewis, the venerable MIT professor known as the father of chemical engineering, must have been in his late seventies then, but as always, he had a full and pressing agenda. This was our first meeting, and I soon learned what the agenda was: Doc Lewis was a great storyteller—a bearer of myths—and I, a historian, was to become the scribe. I soon found myself absorbed by his stories, for Lewis was present at the creation.

As a young Ph.D. student in Wilhelmine Germany and then as a young professor at MIT after the turn of the century, he had witnessed and played a leading role in the creation of the world’s preeminent technological nation. He vividly recalled having ridden in a horse-drawn carriage while dressed in top hat and swallowtail coat to receive the German Ph.D., then a sine qua non for any aspiring American academic chemist.

I felt drawn into his struggle as he recounted persuading recalcitrant mechanical engineers and chemists to establish a chemical-engineering department in order to marry the theoretical and the practical. When he began to reminisce about his former students, I found that these young men, then wet behind the ears, were those whom I recognized as the CEOs of the great chemical- and petroleum-engineering firms during the pioneering and palmy days between the two world wars, when America was becoming the world’s greatest production machine. As our luncheons became weekly, Doc entertained me with stories of his ingenious problem solving as an industrial consultant, including such “ivory tower” problems as developing the high-octane fuel that enabled British Spitfires to outmaneuver German fighter planes during the Battle of Britain. As if this were not enough for one lifetime, he then let me see through his eyes the making of the atom bomb. I felt I was with him and the “Lewis Committee” late in 1942, crossing the country by Pullman car to see Harold Urey working with gaseous diffusion at Columbia, Arthur Compton and Enrico Fermi completing the experimental atomic pile at Chicago’s Stagg Field, and Ernest Lawrence enthusiastically pursuing the electromagnetic process at Berkeley.

No wonder Doc could not stop running: He was in at the creation and remained determined never to be left behind.

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