Central PA Local Section

Frank Whitmore

Cover of C&E News, July 21, 1947



Born, Oct 1, 1887, Dean Frank C. (Rocky) Whitmore received his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral degrees at Harvard University. After short faculty appointments at Williams College, the Rice Institute, and the University of Minnesota, he moved to Northwestern University, where he stayed 10 years, most as head of its chemistry department. His research at Northwestern focused on organomercurial compounds where he also authored the classic ACS Monograph on the organic compounds of mercury.

In 1929 he became Dean of the College of Chemistry and Physics at The Pennsylvania State College and his research expanded to include synthesis and mechanisms in other areas of organic chemistry, especially aliphatic compounds and intramolecular rearrangements. He probably is most famous for proposing and introducing the carbocation as a reaction intermediate to explain whole classes of rearrangements (“Whitmore 1,2-shifts”). The most important early application of this research was the “reforming” process still used today for converting low octane into high octane gasoline. The theory also proved to be the key to success in areas ranging from the preparation of important plastics to the invention of valuable pharmaceuticals. It even explains how the body synthesizes cholesterol. Whitmore also directed the doctoral theses of 118 students and wrote the first important American text on Advanced Organic Chemistry (2nd edition published after his death).

For his achievements, he received many important prizes including the Nichols and Gibbs Medals, the two oldest and highest research awards of ACS local sections. He also was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

While Dean, Whitmore always taught two undergraduate courses taken by all physical science freshmen and sophomores. He always began these classes by telling the students that the purpose of the course was to help get them through Penn State and through life and to do both well – and he meant it. On the first day of class each student had to write down why he or she was taking the course and what they expected to get out of it. They got a four- or five-page reply from Whitmore who criticized everything from their spelling to their personal habits. Whitmore was fond of aphorisms, and his favorites were so well known that students referred to them by initials. The most famous was W.H.A.I. or “Work Hard and Intelligently.”

His service to the American Chemical Society began in the Central Pennsylvania Section and the ACS Organic Division. As long term division secretary, he is credited with introducing abstracts of papers at national meetings. He became Division Chairman, Councilor-at-Large, and ultimately 1938 President of the American Chemical Society. While president, he addressed 72 of the 102 local sections and visited several a second and even a third time. He was a leader in the “struggle for the independence of the clinical chemist” and in establishing chemistry requirements for nursing degrees. He also became the de facto public spokesman for chemistry for over a decade. This included even cover articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Supplement and a Barnwell Address at Central High School in Philadelphia.

He was one of the 20 leading chemists who gathered in Roger Adams basement rec room in Urbana, Illinois in Aug 1940 to divide up critical chemisty problems which had to be solved if the Allies were to win WWII. Later with Adams and James Bryant Conant he coordinated the organic chemistry war effort in the U.S. At Penn State, over 200 chemists and physicists were involved in this effort doing research on aviation fuels, lubricants, superexplosives, antimalarials, synthetic rubber, penicillin, and silicones. Whitmore also consulted for numerous industrial organizations and federal agencies, including the War Production Board, the War Manpower Commission, the National Defense Research Committee, the Office of Production, Research and Development, and the Quartermaster General’s Office. His responsibility to maintain scientific manpower included not only speeches and publications but over 7000 letters to local draft boards on behalf of technically trained workers (during this time, his signature shortened from Frank C. to F. C.).

During the war, Whitmore was also thinking about what research he’d pursue once it was over. Besides continuing his work on the structure and reactivity of Grignard reagents and other organometallics, his “20-year plan” was to follow up some amazing observations on the reactivity of organosilicon compounds (now known as the beta-effect) discovered with his graduate student Leo Sommer.

Although it was hard to tell from the pace Whitmore kept, the war effort had taken its toll on him and on June 24, 1947, this “true casualty of war" died. The ACS passed a resolution calling his contibution to science “immeasurable,” and he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Certificate of Merit. Not long after, Whitmore Laboratory at Penn State was built and dedicated to his memory.