Emmett, Paul H. (Paul Hugh), 1900-1985

Alternative names
Birth 1900-09-22
Death 1985-04-22

Biographical notes:

Paul Hugh Emmett was born in Portland, Oregon, on September 22, 1900. After completing his undergraduate degree at Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University), Emmett attended the California Institute of Technology, where he earned his Ph. D. In 1937 he was appointed chair of the chemical engineering department at Johns Hopkins University. In 1943 he left Johns Hopkins to join the staff of the Manhattan Project, where he was instrumental in developing a technique for the separation of Uranium-235 from U-238. Following a residency at the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, Emmett returned to Johns Hopkins in 1955 as the W.R. Grace Professor in the chemistry department. Paul Emmett discovered the B.E.T. formula for calculating the surface area of a material from the amount of gas it adsorbs, and he worked extensively with ammonia and iron nitride. After retirement, Emmett worked as a research professor at Portland State University, and undertook new research areas investigating the surface area of soils and the porosity of coals, and teaching advanced courses in catalysis. Paul Emmett died on April 22, 1985.

From the description of Paul Emmett papers, 1926-1982. (Eugene Public Library). WorldCat record id: 50620256

Paul Hugh Emmett was born in Portland, Oregon, on September 22, 1900. After completing his baccalaureate at Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University), Emmett went on to the California Institute of Technology, where he earned his Ph.D. His studies brought him into contact with Drs. A. F. Benton and H. S. Taylor, who encouraged his work on catalysis. He was also a close friend of Linus Pauling at both institutions and, indeed, in 1976 Emmett married Pauling's sister, Pauline.

Dr. Emmett became chair of the Chemical Engineering Department at The Johns Hopkins University in 1937. In 1943 he left the university to join the staff of the Manhattan Project, where he was instrumental in developing a technique for the separation of Uranium-235 from U-238. Following a residency at the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, Dr. Emmett returned to Johns Hopkins in 1955, as the W. R. Grace Professor in the Chemistry Department. He was active both nationally and internationally with various chemistry committees and conferences. Dr. Emmett’s contributions include the B.E.T. formula for calculating the surface area of a material from the amount of gas it adsorbs; work with ammonia and iron nitride; and many other detailed experiments.

Emmett retired from Johns Hopkins in 1971. "His 'retirement rocking chair,'" Burtron Davis points out, "was an appointment as research professor in the Chemistry Department at Portland State University, undertaking new research areas such as surface area of soils and the porosity of coals, presenting seminar talks, offering advanced courses in catalysis, consulting at W. R. Grace, Oak Ridge, and Mobil, reviewing manuscripts, publishing 12 papers with students and co-workers, frequent travel to national and international scientific meetings, receiving seven of his distinguished achievement awards, etc." In short, Dr. Emmett remained active up until his death, on April 22, 1985.

Interested readers are referred to Burtron Davis's article on Dr. Emmett in the Journal of Physical Chemistry, Vol. 90, No. 20 (September 25, 1986): 4700-4705.

  • 1900: Paul Hugh Emmett is born on September 22 in Portland, Oregon. Emmett's father is a railroad worker and the family moves often as a result. For a period of at least one year, Emmett's mother works as a cook for the railroad and both of his parents live on a train car. As a student at Portland's Washington High School, Emmett meets Linus Pauling, who will remain a life-long friend, scientific colleague and, eventually, brother-in-law. As high school science students, Emmett and Pauling are both deeply influenced by their chemistry teacher, Dr. William V. Green.
  • 1922: In June, Emmett receives his Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Oregon Agricultural College. In the Fall, Emmett begins his doctoral studies in physical chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. Emmett's Ph. D. supervisor is Dr. Arthur F. Benton, himself a recent Ph. D. who trained at Princeton University under Dr. Hugh S. Taylor, the era's foremost expert on catalysis chemistry. As a result of Benton's influence, Emmett chooses to pursue a career in catalysis chemistry. While at Caltech, Emmett's chief research focus is the autocatalysis of metal oxide reduction.
  • 1923: Linus Pauling enrolls in the Ph. D. program at Caltech and moves in with Paul Emmett and Emmett's mother. For most of their year living together, Pauling and Paul Emmett share a bed, which they use sequentially - Pauling typically studies until approximately 3 AM, at which time Emmett is usually waking up. While graduate students, Emmett and Pauling also collaborate on a study of the structure of barium sulfate.
  • 1925: Emmett completes his Ph. D. in Physical Chemistry at Caltech and promptly accepts a position as Instructor at Oregon Agricultural College, which he fills for one year.
  • 1926: Emmett joins the staff of the United States Department of Agriculture's Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory, Washington, D. C. During his eleven years at the Laboratory, Emmett leads a series of investigations into the implementation of catalysis in ammonia synthesis and water-gas conversion, the decomposition of ammonia, and the properties of iron catalysts, among other projects. While in the employ of the Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory, Emmett also serves numerous stints as Lecturer at George Washington University.
  • 1930: On July 14, Emmett marries Leila L. Jones.
  • 1937: Accepts an appointment as Professor and Chairman of Chemical Engineering at The Johns Hopkins University, where he will remain until 1943. Begins a five-year period of service as a member of the Committee on Contact Catalysis, National Research Council.
  • 1938: With Stephen Brunauer and Edward Teller, Emmett publishes a paper (J. Am. Chem. Soc., 1938, 60, 309) which proposes a method for measuring the surface area of a given material, based upon the amount of gas that the material adsorbs. The Brunauer-Emmett-Teller (BET) Equation proposed in this paper proves to be hugely influential to the field of heterogeneous catalysis. Though published during Emmett's tenure at Johns Hopkins, the BET work was developed during his time at the Fixed Nitrogen Laboratory.
  • 1939: Receives an honorary doctorate from his undergraduate alma mater, now known as Oregon State College.
  • 1943: In August Emmett begins a sixteen-month stint as a Division Chief of the Manhattan Project. Based at Columbia University in New York City, Emmett manages a group of researchers attempting to convert uranium into uranium hexafluoride gas.
  • 1944: In December Emmett leaves the Manhattan Project (though he will remain a consultant) for a Petroleum Refining Fellowship at the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He remains at the Institute for over ten years, working primarily on fundamental research into the mechanism of catalytic reactions. As part of this work, Emmett introduces the use of radioisotopes as a tool for studying catalytic reactions, a method that he uses to gain insight into the catalytic cracking technique for producing gasoline. During his time at the Mellon Institute, Emmett also contributes mightily to the scientific understanding of Fischer-Tropsch catalysis, a process frequently employed to produce synthetic petroleum substitutes.
  • 1953: Receives the Pittsburgh Award from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania section of the American Chemical Society.
  • 1954: Begins editorial work on a seven-volume series of papers by numerous authors on the subject of catalysis. The treatise, considered to be an authoritative survey, is published in 1960 by Reinhold Publishing Company.
  • 1955: In July Emmett leaves the Mellon Institute in favor of a return to The Johns Hopkins University, where he is named W. R. Grace Professor of Chemistry. Though he has changed locations, his laboratory continues to investigate many of the topics first studied at the Mellon Institute. Emmett is elected to membership in the National Academy of Science.
  • 1958: Receives the Kendall Award from the American Chemical Society.
  • 1963: Begins pursuing a new line of inquiry wherein he uncovers the mechanisms underlying the unlikely ability of xenon and fluorine to form compounds.
  • 1964: Receives the degree Docteur Honoris Causa from the University of Lyon, France. In October, at a symposium on catalysis held in Madrid, Emmett is named an honorary councilor of the Consejo Superior, the Spanish government's highest decoration for scientific achievement.
  • 1968: Emmett's first wife, Leila, dies.
  • 1969: Receives an honorary doctorate from Clarkson College, Potsdam, New York.
  • 1970: Receives the section award of the Maryland Section of the American Chemical Society as well as the Catalyst Club of Philadelphia Award.
  • 1971: Retires from The Johns Hopkins University under the title Professor Emeritus. Accepts an appointment as Visiting Research Professor at Portland State University, where his research interests include the surface area of soils and the porosity of coal. Emmett will remain active at Portland State up until the months preceding his death in 1985.
  • 1972: The Paul Emmett Award is established by the Catalysis Society of North America.
  • 1974: Receives the Distinguished Service Award - the highest honor granted by his alma mater, Oregon State University. Receives an honorary doctorate from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.
  • 1976: On May 22, Emmett marries Pauline Pauling, the elder of Linus Pauling's two sisters. Emmett has known Pauline for well-over fifty years. Receives an honorary doctorate from Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan.
  • 1977: Receives the Distinguished Alumni Award from the California Institute of Technology.
  • 1980: Receives the Howard Vollum Award for Science and Technology from Reed University.
  • 1985: On April 22, following a gradual decline from Parkinson's disease and a brain tumor, Paul Emmett dies at the age of 84. Over the course of his career, Emmett has authored more than 150 scientific publications.

From the guide to the Paul Emmett Papers, 1918-2001, (Oregon State University The Valley Library, Special Collections)


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  • Photographs
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