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Lamb, Arthur Becket (1880-1952)

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Arthur Lamb
Arthur Becket Lamb

Below are two biographical perspectives on Arthur Becket Lamb, the first from The Journal of American Chemical Society and the second from the Harvard Faculty Minutes.

Biography from 
The Journal of American Chemical Society

There are many old New England names in the roster of distinguished American scientific men, and Arthur Becket Lamb earned a place among them at an early age. His family migrated in 1630 from near London to Roxbury, Massachusetts.

His parents, Lois and Elizabeth (Becket) Lamb, lived in Attleboro, Mass., where the family jewelry manufacturing business was located. Arthur B. was born to them on February 25, 1880, the second of three sons.

Arthur’s high school record was satisfactory to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but not his mere sixteen years. Tufts College was the final choice, after consultations with an old family friend, Dean Leonard of the Tufts Divinity School, and he was enrolled in the fall of 1896.

Arthur Lamb was a “biology major” in college. When his undergraduate work was completed, he chose chemistry for graduate work. Chemistry had been chosen now for a career. He registered at Harvard Graduate School. Lamb had organized his Tufts College graduate research into a thesis, taken the examinations, and received the Ph.D. degree from Tufts prior to the Harvard graduation. The Harvard Faculty learned of this and decided that it was proper to grant him the Harvard Ph.D. also, since the two theses embodied completely different work. Harvard appointed him as instructor in electrochemistry.

By 1914 Assistant Professor Lamb was fairly well settled on his new work as teacher and laboratory director. The War Department upon the entrance of the United States into the World War in 1917 turned to the Harvard department for help. Lamb’s first war work was on a project coming from “Military Intelligence.” New methods were studied for producing and developing invisible writing. Next, the National Research Council urged a study of the detection and removal of carbon monoxide from air.

As the tempo of the War increased the War Department established the Chemical Warfare Service. Lamb received a leave of absence from Harvard in the late summer of 1917 to join this organization. His activities became both supervision of research and his newly accepted editorship of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Boylston Hall
Harvard’s Boylston Hall.

Lamb as Lieutenant Colonel was made Chief of the Defense Chemical Research Section. As Chief he continued to practice chemistry, but he became an accomplished executive. His natural, kindly and approachable manner and disposition were of the greatest value in cementing friendships, and making new ones.

Although the Armistice brought rapid demobilization of much of the War Research personnel, the final decision was reached to establish the Research Division as a permanent military unit at the Edgewood Arsenal.

By the end of 1920 Lamb was faced with the decision between either remaining in Washington and resigning from the Faculty at Harvard, or returning to the University. He chose the latter alternative and in September of 1921 was once again active in University teaching and research.

Harvard’s Boylston Hall had been the chemical laboratory since 1857; Josiah Parsons Cooke in the 1890’s had recommended improved quarters but without results. Immediate migration of the Harvard chemists to the growing science campus in quiet surroundings north of the Yard now became Director Lamb’s pressing concern, both as to planning and as to financing. He carried on much of the work of design and negotiation with the architects and contractors, and he solicited the needed funds from many sources, attested by the names of Mallinckrodt and Converse on the buildings. Within a year or two he was engaged in a similar task in the construction of Byerly Hall for Radcliffe College.

On December 27 of 1923 he married Blanche Anne Driscoll. Students and friends alike will remember their home in Brookline as the scene of many congenial gatherings. In 1926 David Becket was born, and Deborah Anne in 1928. Mrs. Lamb’s frequent illnesses led to her death in 1935.

American Chemical SocietyThe American Chemical Society chose Arthur B. Lamb as its President for the year 1933.

During the late 1930’s Lamb served as deacon in the First Unitarian Parish of Brookline, as a member of the the Board of Trustees of the Brookline Public Library and of the Winsor School.

Arthur B. Lamb was promoted to Professor in 1920, Sheldon Emery Professor in 1925 and Erving Professor in 1929, and in 1940 he was made Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He retired from the Directorship of the Harvard Chemical Laboratory in 1946 and from undergraduate teaching two years later. The University allowed him to retain his office and laboratory suite for Journal work and several continuing research problems. The American Chemical Society presented him with its highest honor, the Priestley Medal, at the 116th Meeting in Atlantic City in September of 1949.

The veteran Editor, at 69, tendered his resignation to the Directors, served as a member of the committee to choose a new editor, and smoothed the transition by continuing on the Board as Consulting Editor. The January 1950 issue of the Journal, with testimonial statement and his portrait, and consisting entirely of papers by former Harvard chemists and Board members, was planned and carried through without his knowledge, and came as a most delightful surprise to him.

As teacher, research director, editor, consultant and citizen, his services extended over half a century. By decades Arthur B. Lamb spent the first serving his apprenticeship as teacher and executive, and much of the second in the service of his country as scientist and coordinator of men. The third and fourth decades were devoted largely to his adopted University and to his professional Society. Then, instead of retiring quietly, he spent the fifth decade serving all of them: as teacher, researcher, consultant, editor, administrator, and friend in the interests of his university, society, country and fellow men. His personality and teaching reached and permeated all of chemistry, and his contributions to and influence on chemistry will long outlive all of us who knew, admired and loved him.

— By Allen D. Bliss, from The Journal of the American Chemical Society Volume 77, Nov. 20, 1955

Arthur Becket Lamb
From the Harvard University Faculty Minutes

Arthur Lamb
Arthur Becket Lamb

Arthur Becket Lamb was born on February 25, 1880, in Attleboro, Massachusetts. Before he was sixteen he had shown signs of the wide-ranging interest, practical skill, imagination, and leadership that were to characterize his scientific career. It is recorded that he and some friends were well on the way toward observing all the double stars within the range of the high school telescope until their parents objected to the late hours involved. At the same period Lamb constructed a good microscope with the aid of the machinery in his father’s jewelry factory. He read all the mathematics and chemistry books available in the school library, and with a group of school friends he produced, in 1895, a simple X-ray photograph using a Crookes Tube and a static machine at hand in the school physics laboratory.

At Tufts College his interest turned at first to biology because of his familiarity with the microscope. Lamb’s first published article was in biology, but by the end of his senior year he had decided that his real interest was in chemistry. For two years he carried on research first in inorganic and then in organic chemistry, under Arthur Michael, a famous iconoclast whose versatile publications on organic chemistry appeared in the journals over a period of sixty-seven years. By the end of the second year Lamb fixed upon physical chemistry, then an immature science, as the field of his choice.

In 1902, on the eve of his intended departure from Tufts for further study at Johns Hopkins University, he met T. W. Richards, with whom one conversation was sufficient to divert Lamb to Harvard. Having already enough material for a Ph.D. thesis at Tufts, he embarked on new studies at Harvard and, completing the requirements at both institutions in 1904, he was awarded the Ph.D. simultaneously by Harvard and Tufts. After a year in Europe, chiefly at Ostwald’s laboratory under Luther, and a year as instructor at Harvard, Lamb became Assistant Professor and Director of the Havemeyer Chemical Laboratory at New York University. In 1912 he returned to a similar appointment at Harvard, becoming Professor on the death of Professor Sanger in the same year.

As might have been expected from the breadth of Lamb’s early intellectual activities, he remained interested in science on a wide front. Although his own researches were concerned with phenomena of the pure chemist’s laboratory, his uncommon ability for solving practical problems came to the fore repeatedly in war research and in his activities as a consultant throughout his life.

In the summer of 1917 he secured leave from the University to devote himself to war research, first on secret writing, then on removal of carbon monoxide from air, and finally as Chief of the Defense Chemical Research Section of the Chemical Warfare Service with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He became greatly interested in the human problems which this effort presented. He often cited later what he considered his greatest success in this field: getting Professor E. P. Kohler to go to Washington to bring about more orderly development in the Offense Section. His own section achieved marked success in the development of a protective canister for gas masks, and his work was applied in peace time to safety appliances for use in mines.

Returning from a mission to Europe at the end of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Lamb obtained passage on a crowded transport, to find himself the ranking military officer aboard and automatically in command of all the troops. This responsibility was smoothly discharged with the aid of a regular army major whom Lamb quickly located and invited to share his luxurious suite.

During the period of demobilization, Lamb declined an offer from the Westinghouse Electric Company to assume the directorship of its research laboratory. He also declined a peacetime commission in the Chemical Warfare Service, but consented to serve during the transition period as Director of the Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory whose purpose was to work out the peacetime use of the new national facilities for the fixation of nitrogen. In this position one of his notable contributions was a voluntary trust for patent rights which he devised. The trust, which protected the rights of the Government while offering incentive to the individual both to develop his own inventions and to cooperate in developing those of his neighbors, diminished some of the less attractive aspects of Government service for scientists.

In 1921 he returned to the University and for the next twenty-eight years he devoted himself to his chosen enterprise – teaching Chemistry A (now Chemistry 1), directing the laboratory and the research of his students, and editing the Journal of the American Chemical Society. From 1923 to 1928 he guided the planning and construction of the Mallinckrodt, Converse and Byerly laboratories with meticulous care. His graduate students, twenty-two in all, were an exceptionally devoted group. He was appointed Erving Professor of Chemistry in 1929 and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from 1940 to 1943. He was one of the original Associates of Winthrop House.

Of all Lamb’s activities, the one closest to his heart was the Journal of the American Chemical Society. To it he devoted an amount of time which, as he always felt, set serious limits upon the scope of his research program. Editor from 1917 to 1949, he continued to serve as Consulting Editor until his death. In his hands its size increased fourfold, its scientific importance perhaps even more. The Journal became truly a monument to its editor’s rare tact, kindness, judicial spirit, and ability to elicit the best from contributors, co-editors, and referees. Uncompromising in his determination to be fair, he was a tireless interlocutor between authors and anonymous referees. It was never too late for an author to submit a rebuttal, nor for the editor to secure one more reader’s opinion. The more prominent the author, the more rigorously must his papers run the gauntlet. Veteran contributors not infrequently rebelled, feeling that they should have outlined the application of such procedures to them. When this happened, Lamb would devote himself to mending the breach without compromise of his standards, and in the long run he nearly always regained the friendship and respect of his rebels.

Among Lamb’s many professional honors were: election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1923, the honorary degree of Doctor of Science (Tufts) in 1923, and election as President of the American Chemical Society in 1933. He was awarded the Nichols medal (1943), the Priestly medal (1949), the first Ballou medal established to recognize distinguished Tufts alumni in 1944, and the Patterson award. As a final honor, he presided at the banquet of the XIIth International Congress of Pure and Applied Chemistry in September, 1951.

He was married to Blanche Anne Driscoll in 1923 and was the father of two children, David Becket and Deborah Anne. He enjoyed billiards and bridge indoors and mountain climbing and tennis outdoors until his physical activity was curtailed. He served his community as Trustee of the Brookline Public Library and secondary education as President of the Trustees of Winsor School.

Retirement brought as little change in Lamb’s routine as he could arrange. He went to his office daily and continued in a number of professional activities occupying his own full time and that of a secretary and a research assistant. Death came suddenly on May 15, 1952, at the close of a day of normal activity.

The Faculty accepted these Minutes and it was understood that they would be spread upon the records of the Faculty.

A Note on Unitarian Connections

The presentation of the Joseph Priestley Medal of the American Chemical Society symbolizes the creative union of the natural sciences and the Unitarian celebration of the world. Priestley was not only the discoverer of the element oxygen but a Unitarian minister who served in Birmingham, England and Northumberland, Pennsylvania. Benjamin Franklin was one of his hearers and admirers. Priestley’s gift to Thomas Jefferson of his harmony of the synoptic gospels of the New Testament inspired President Jefferson to prepare his own Harmony with the New Testament which is repeatedly issued now as The Jefferson Bible.

Upon being awarded the Priestley Medal, Arthur Lamb said:

“I am particularly happy to receive a medal bearing Priestley’s name. His personality and character have always awakened my warmest admiration. A poor, provincial teacher and preacher of an unpopular denomination, kindly and likable, with an active omnivorous mind that led him, while still a young man, to proficieney in eight languages and to the publication of scores of books and pamphlets on subjects as diverse as, for instance, the History and Present State of Discoveries Relating to Vision, Light, and Color (two volumes); a Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism; a General History of the Christian Church (six volumes); A Treatise on Civil Government; a Harmony of the Evangelists in Greek; A Familiar Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Perspective; and Discourses on the Evidences of Divine Revelation (three volumes).

“Then a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin stimulated Priestley to undertake original experiments in natural science. Whereupon this happy and enthusiastic amateur, in the springtime of our science, as in a garden where no one else- had ventured, quickly gathered a garland of wonderful discoveries which will keep his name fresh in the minds of men forever. Later, his bold and enthusiastic support in sermons and pamphlets of the cause of the American Colonists, of the French Republic, and of human liberty and justice everywhere, brought him great unpopularity, and led to his resignation from the Royal Society, to the burning of his church and home and laboratory by a mob, and forced him into hiding and ultimately to flee from England to this country. Nevertheless, in spite of all these vicissitudes, near the end of his life at his home on the Susquehanna, he could say: ‘Few persons, I believe, have enjoyed life more than I have.’ Both as chemists and as Americans we owe Priestley our homage and affection.”