Thomas Crowell begins a new century

Thomas Crowell attributes his longevity to diet and exercise.

Crowell, a retired chemistry professor at the University of Virginia, turned 100 on July 9 at a party surrounded by members of his extended family.

“I eat oatmeal every day,” he said, wearing a beige and green plaid shirt and khaki pants, sitting in a veranda of his house surrounded by his daughters’ plants. and his musical instruments. “I remember a long time ago I would stop at a cafeteria in New York City and have oatmeal, toast and coffee for 30 cents. A more likely reason for my longevity is exercise in old age.

Crowell, who wears hiking shoes all the time, even to church, walks his neighborhood almost every day and remembers walking the streets of New York City as a young man to exercise.

“I am not standing still.” he said. “They say sitting down is not good at all. In my job, when I was doing research at the AVU, if someone would come and talk to me, I would say “Come to the lab”, so I would work while we were talking. ”

The Manhattan Project

Crowell, who grew up in Caldwell, New Jersey, went to local schools and finally to Putney School in Putney, Vermont, for two years where a good chemistry and math teacher put him on his way.

“I wondered if I wanted to major in math, and I mistakenly thought the only jobs available would be as an insurance actuary, but that was my rather vague reasoning,” he said.

While he focused on chemistry as an undergraduate student at Harvard University and later as a graduate student at Columbia University, Crowell also kept his hands on mathematics.

“While I was a graduate student at Columbia in chemistry, I was offered a very stimulating job teaching math classes at Bard College, which is about an hour from the Hudson,” Crowell said. “I got on the train at 7 am and taught math for two days before coming back. It was great fun, a happy new year.

But chemistry had a tactile lure that mathematics didn’t.

“I like to work with my hands and do the real experiences,” Crowell said.

Crowell’s movement towards chemistry took him through some interesting times, including, he said, work on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret US government project to develop an atomic bomb during WWII. World War. Like most of his classmates, he had graduated halfway through his final year at Harvard, when he embarked on the Manhattan Project.

“My first job on the Manhattan Project was to go to the Columbia library every day and copy by hand – there were no copiers back then – every reference in the library to the chemical compound BF3, the boron trifluoride. Boron is a low molecular weight element found in boric acid.

“I got fed up with it. It was a terrible job to do that. Now you could go to your computer, press a button, and pull out all the articles ever written on boron trifluoride, but there was no such thing back then.

Then Crowell moved from the library to the lab, this one to Havemeyer Hall at Columbia University.

“They needed these boron compounds as part of the whole project,” Crowell said. “In the beginning my job was to do a lot of work with this compound. The Manhattan Project, of course, was secret so we didn’t talk about it. What we were doing we didn’t even know. There was a rumor that they were working on a bomb, which was true, but bombs were dropped every day in England and I thought the goal was to release large amounts of energy, which was to put it mildly. I thought maybe this power could be used for army trucks.

“We had no idea of ​​the terrible consequences of what we were doing until the actual attack on Hiroshima was published in the newspaper. It was a complete shock.

Arrival at UVA

After the war, Crowell attended an American Chemical Society conference in Chicago, where many jobs were published. At the conference, he met Bob Lutz, who taught organic chemistry at UVA. Lutz suggested an interview with Crowell for an AVU opening, and chemistry president Arthur F. Benton hired him.

“My doctoral research had been in the area of ​​physical organic chemistry and was completely different from my work on the project.” Crowell said. “My specialty was measuring reaction rate, kinetics, which means you mix a few chemicals and stand with your stopwatch or calendar and see how long they take to react and see what the mathematical formula is. exact for the rate of change. “

The chemistry department was housed at Cobb Hall, and Crowell set up a laboratory where he could blow glass for scientific instruments, and he began teaching classes in physical organic chemistry and organic structure.

William L. Duren Jr., the dean of the college, appointed Crowell chairman of the department in 1955, even though he was one of the junior chemistry professors.

As president, Crowell held the key to the storage room where the chemicals were stored.

“One day someone called me and told me there was liquid coming out from under the door of the storeroom,” he said. “It was from some bottles of concentrated hydrogen peroxide, and they can explode if not properly ventilated for the oxygen to escape. So, with the help of a graduate student, who wrapped himself up in a web, we went in and we took out these boxes of hydrogen peroxide, I really enjoyed that part of the presidency.

What he liked least was academic politics, people who were looking for positions and looking for favors.

“Someone even came to my house one night to try and promote their person,” Crowell said.

Crowell, who retired in 1984, stepped up the department’s research and appointed new faculty members in physical chemistry.

“Dean Duren, after my five-year term ended, thanked me for my efforts to keep the department together, in fact it was due to the efforts of many young instructors,” Crowell said.

In class, Crowell taught the importance of the little things.

“I tried to teach them to keep their eyes open,” he said. “If you have an unexpected result, don’t throw it away, because there’s probably a clue in there. Don’t overlook little clues and watch for unexpected results.

Wedding and music

Crowell’s life was not limited to chemistry. After arriving at AVU, he met and married a nursing student, Mary M. Wheat, and they shared a life and love of music.

“When Mary and I first got married and I was a young professor at AVU, the music department was at Minor Hall,” he said. “I climbed the masonry of the large window in Minor Hall, opened the window and went upstairs. I walked around the locked door and let Mary in so we could play the piano for four hands. “

“Music runs through my entire narrative,” Crowell said. “Half the fun and motivation in my life has been music, especially the French horn.

“During my freshman year in college, the opportunity arose to play in a large orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler – not the old Arthur Fiedler you might have seen with a white beard, but a young one. vigorous man of about 40 years old. “

While Crowell enjoyed playing with the orchestra, his studies suffered, although he was still able to graduate with honors from Harvard and work with the Manhattan Project.

Crowell, who has large hands with long fingers, still plays music, now mostly piano.

“I took piano lessons in the 1920s and learned to play the piano a bit and read music quite well,” he said. “One year, I accompanied the University Singers.

“I now have the chance to practice the piano. I play miserably, but without much vision, I memorized a few preludes and fugues for Bach’s The Well-Tempered Klavier. I’m having a blast, even with my aching fingers and I’m starting to not do what I want. Even with that, I feel the effect of the practice. When I train I can play better.

Crowell also loves books, but macular degeneration has forced him to use a large magnifying glass.

And he tries to broaden his knowledge of languages, having studied Spanish and reading some in French and German.

“I read a little,” he said. “For a while I read a lot of history. My daughters read to me every day.

Crowell takes care of his daily exercise and music routines because staying active keeps him young.

“Years go by, and unless you plan your time, time just flies,” Crowell said.

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