Marvel, Carl Shipp (“Speed”)

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(b. Waynesville, Illinois, 11 September 1894; d. Tucson, Arizona, 4 January 1988)

organic chemistry, polymer science.

The son of John Thomas Marvel and Mary Lucy Wasson Marvel, Carl was born on a farm and expected to be a farmer. He later said that his uncle, who had been a high school teacher, urged him to study science “because the next generation of farmers was going to need scientific knowledge to get the most out of their work.” In 1911 Marvel entered Illinois Wesleyan University, where he studied chemistry under Alfred W. Homberger. As a junior, Marvel found what he really enjoyed doing—synthesizing organic compounds.

After receiving the B.A. and M.S. degrees in 1915, Marvel accepted a $250 scholarship to the University of Illinois at Urbana to study chemistry, though he still expected to return to the family farm. Unimpressed by Marvel’s transcript from Illinois Wesleyan, David Kinley, dean of the graduate school, told him, “You apparently do not know very much chemistry, so I’ll have to give you an overload of work to catch up.” As a result, Marvel’s dormitory colleagues gave him the nickname “Speed,” which he used throughout his career, even in official correspondence, because of his ability to work late in the laboratory, sleep until the last moment in the morning, and still get to breakfast before the dining hall closed at 7:30 a.m.

In the summer of 1916, the year in which Marvel received his A.M. degree, Clarence Derick established a production unit at Illinois called Organic Chemical Manufactures, to produce organic chemicals that had been imported from Germany before World War I. During the academic year 1917–1918 Marvel worked in this unit, but in 1919 he returned to full-time graduate studies, working under department head William Albert Noyes and receiving the Ph.D. in 1920.

Since industrial jobs were then scarce. Marvel stayed at Illinois, becoming successively instructor (1920–1921), associate (1921–1923), assistant professor (1923–1927), associate professor (1927–1930), professor of organic chemistry (1930–1953), and research professor of organic chemistry (1953–1961). With Roger Adams and Reynold C. Fuson, he was instrumental in making the organic chemistry program at Illinois preeminent in the United States. After his retirement in 1961 he became professor of chemistry at the University of Arizona (1961–1978). Following his second retirement he continued research with a small group of postdoctoral fellows, working almost daily in his laboratory until the summer before his death of reanl failure at the age of ninety-three.

On 26 December 1933 Marvel married Alberta Hughes, a librarian and former high school English teacher. They had one son and one daughter. Despite his voluminous research Marvel considered teaching his greatest contribution; 176 students earned their doctorates under his tutelage, and 150 postdoctoral fellows worked with him. It is difficult to find organic polymer chemists anywhere in the world who have not had some relationship to Marvel.

Marvel worked primarily on the structure and synthesis of polymers—the large, high-molecular-weight molecules comprising plastics, elastomers, and fibers. His first sixty to seventy articles dealt largely with preparative organic chemistry, including syntheses of amino acids and organometallic compounds. While trying to synthesize bromoalkyl diethylamines for possible use in drug manufacture, Marvel obtained low polymers in the form of polyalkyl ammonium salts. By measuring the ratio of ionic to nonionic bromine in these polymers, he was able to calculate the molecular weights.

Marvel became more involved with polymers after he became a consultant for DuPont in 1928. (In his sixty years with DuPont he gave 19,000 individual consultations.) Asked to investigate the claim of English chemist F. E. Matthews that polymers could be formed by the reaction of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and ethylene, by using the more convenient cyclohexene, Marvel confirmed the formation of polysulfones, from which poker chips could be made but which was not stable enough for commercial use. Beginning in 1933, he studied copolymers of SO2 and α-olefins, determining their structure and developing initiators (such as peroxide or ultraviolet light) for the polymerization reactions involved in their preparation. In 1937 Marvel began to investigate the mechanism of the polymerization and structure of vinyl polymers. He proved that the repeating units in most polymers prepared from polyvinyl chloride are formed with the chlorine atoms on alternate carbon atoms (head-to-tail), as Hermann Staudinger had suggested, rather than on adjacent carbon atoms (head-to-head). This work led to the preparation and polymerization of new monomers.

Between 1942 and 1945 Marvel headed a group of chemists, numbering a hundred at its peak, who worked as part of the U. S. government’s synthetic rubber program. He and his team investigated the synthesis and polymerization of numerous butadiene derivatives, showing that the thiol used in the polymerization of synthetic rubber controlled the final molecular weight of the butadene-styrene copolymer and developing the redox systems that proved to be effective in the emulsion polymerization of butadiene and styrene.

They also found that polyunsaturated fatty acids present in some of the soaps, used to emulsify the insoluble monomers with water, interfered with polymerization and that when the soap was hydrogenated, the inhibition ceased. In addition, they studied the relationship between the structure and physical properties of butadiene copolymers by use of free-radical initiators and alkali metal catalysts. In their search for new synthetic rubbers, they prepared polysulfides from diolefins and dimercaptans. During the next decade they synthesized many new polymers.

In 1946 Marvel was a member of a technical intelligence team that went to Germany. They found that the Germans had been working on a new polymerization process that could produce a better synthetic rubber by operating at 5° C (41° F), in contrast with the earlier process, which was at 70° C (158° F). Marvel’s group took up this research and developed the cold rubber process for American industry.

Beginning in 1956, high-temperature-resistant synthetic materials became important in the government’s space program. In his syntheses of these polymers, Marvel developed cyclopolymerization. In what is regarded as one of the most significant advances in the chemistry of high-temperature polymers during the 1960’s, he prepared polymers with repeating rigid heterocyclic or benzenoid groups in the main chain, and he synthesized polymers with repeating benzimidazole units (polybenzimidazoles, or PBI’s) heat-resistant (to as high as 600° C [1,112° F]) macromolecules of high molecular weight. In 1980 PBI became the first new man-made fiber to be produced commercially in nearly a decade. It is a substitute for fiberglass and asbestos (no longer used for health reasons), and because of its exceptional resistance to fire, it is used in suits for astronauts and fire fighters. Marvel continued his work on heat-resistant polymers at the University of Arizona until his death.

Marvel was active in the American Chemical Society, in which he held many offices, including president in 1945. A member of numerous domestic and foreign scientific societies, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1938 (chairman of the Section of Chemistry, 1944–1947). He received honorary D.Sc. degrees from lllionis Wesleyan University (1946), the University of lllinois (1963), and the New York Polytechnic Institute (1983), and a doctoral honoris causa degree from the University of Louvain (1970). Marvel’s American Chemical Society honors include the Nichols Medal (1944), the Willard Gibbs Medal (1950), the Priestley Medal (the society’s highest honor, 1956), the Witco Award of the Division of Polymer Chemistry (1964), the Polymer Division Education Award (1984), and the Chemical Education Award (1984). His other awards include the American Insitute of Chemists’ Gold Medal (1955) and the Chemical Pioneer Award (1967), the Society of Plastics Engineers’ International Award (1964), the Society of Chemical Industry’s Perkin Medal (1965), and the U.S. government’s National Medal of Science (1986). The Carl Shipp Marvel Laboratories of Chemistry at the University of Arizona and Marvel Hall at the American Chemical Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., were named in his honor.


I. Original Works. During his long research career Marvel wrote more than 500 articles and 4 books, and he held 52 patents. For personal accounts of his life and career, as well as of the history of organic and polymer chemistry in the United States, see “Autobiography,” in R. D. Ulrich, ed., Contemporary Topics in Polymer Science, I, Macromolecular Science: Retrospect and Prospect (New York, 1978), 133–141; “My 69 Years of Chemistry,” in CHEMTECH, 10 (1980), 8–11; “The Development of Polymer Chemistry in America—The Early Days,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 58 (1981), 535–539. During his career Marvel accumulated ninety-three boxes of manuscripts, letters, research reports, books, photographs, and awards, which his family donated in 1988 to the National Library of Chemical History, associated with the Arnold & Mabel Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, located at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

II. Secondary Literature. Burton C. Anderson, “‘Speed’ Marvel at DuPont,” in Journal of Macromolecular Science—Chemistry, A21 (1984), 1665–1687; Burton C. Anderson and Robert D. Lipscomb, “Carl Shipp Marvel: ‘Speed at 90,’” in Macromolecules, 17 (1984), 1641–1643; Herman Mark, “The Contribution of Carl (Speed) Marvel to Polymer Science,” in Journal of Macromolecular Science—Chemistry, A21 (1984), 1567–1606; “Marvel, Carl Shipp,” in McGraw-Hill Modern Scientists and Engineers, II (New York, 1980), 282–283; Peter J. T. Morris, Polymer Pioneers: A Popular History of the Science and Technology of Large Molecules (Philadelphia, 1986), 61–63; J. E. Mulvaney, “Interview with Carl S. Marvel,” in Journal of Chemical Education, 53 (1976), 609–613; Raymond B. Seymour, “Polymer Science Pioneers: Carl Shipp Marvel,” in Polymer News, 5 (1979), 216–217; and Ward Worthy, “Carl Marvel: An Extraordinary Influence on American Chemistry,” in Chemical & Engineering News, 66, no. 17 (25 April 1988), 20–22.

George B. Kauffman