Bailar, John Christian, Jr.
- George B. Kauffman
Bailar, John Christian, Jr. (27 May 1904–17 October 1991), chemist and educator, was born in Golden, Colorado, the son of John Christian Bailar, an instructor in chemistry at the Colorado School of Mines at Golden, and Rachel Ella Work. His parents were the first married couple to enroll at and graduate from the University of Colorado. His father was a great raconteur, a trait that the son would share. Bailar often accompanied his father to his office-laboratory, where he acquired much chemical knowledge by performing simple laboratory operations, such as folding filter paper and pouring solutions through funnels.
At age thirteen Bailar obtained his first job—constructing shipping crates at the Coors Porcelain Company in Golden, where he later worked on a construction gang and was employed as a chemist analyzing clay. During summers in his high school and college years, he worked at the Coors “bottle house,” where near beer (a malt beverage with an alcohol content of less than .5 percent) was bottled and packed (Prohibition was in effect). He attended his parents’ alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder, from which he graduated in 1924 with a B.A. magna cum laude. During the summer of 1924 he registered as a graduate physics major at the University of Michigan, taking courses in electromagnetism, atomic structure, and X-ray diffraction.
With the aid of a fellowship, Bailar spent a year at the University of Colorado, where he received his M.A. in inorganic chemistry in 1925 with a thesis on nitrogen tetrasulfide and nitrogen selenide. He received a fellowship at the University of Michigan, where he earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry (1928) with a dissertation on halogen substituted pinacols. His research was supervised by organic chemist Moses Gomberg, famed for his work on free radicals. Later Bailar deliberately eschewed the example of Gomberg, who supervised his students closely. Instead, he gave his research students much freedom and the opportunity to plan and perform their own experiments.
In 1928 Bailar became instructor in organic chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana, where he remained for sixty-three years, almost half the time of the school’s existence. He became associate in 1930, assistant professor in 1935, associate professor in 1939, professor in 1943, and professor emeritus in 1972. In 1931 he married Florence Leota Catherwood, his former graduate teaching assistant. They had two sons, both of whom would occupy prominent academic positions; the younger one, Benjamin Franklin Bailar, also served as U.S. postmaster general (1975–1978). Bailer’s wife died in 1975 and the following year he married Katharine Reade Ross, who had been his babysitter when he was a child.
Although Bailar had been interested in organic isomerism as a graduate student, it was only while teaching a general chemistry course at Urbana that he realized that isomerism, the occurrence of different compounds with the same chemical composition, is a general phenomenon that can also exist among inorganic compounds. In his literature search for examples of inorganic isomers, he encountered coordination chemistry, a field that, like inorganic chemistry itself, had been neglected in the United States. He trained several generations of coordination chemists (ninety doctorates, thirty-eight postdoctoral fellows, and numerous bachelor’s and master’s degree candidates), making the University of Illinois, already a leading center of organic chemistry in the United States, equally renowned for inorganic chemistry. He soon became universally acknowledged as the “father of American coordination chemistry.”
When Bailar began his career at Illinois, inorganic chemistry was languishing in the United States, where, of the small number of inorganic chemists, most, like him, were overburdened with teaching duties in general chemistry. Few inorganic courses existed, little inorganic research was being carried out, and there were few avenues for publication. At the fall 1933 meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), five prominent inorganic chemists decided that there was a need for a series of volumes giving detailed, independently tested methods for the synthesis of inorganic compounds in the manner of Organic Syntheses, a series founded by Roger Adams, Bailar’s Illinois colleague. Bailar joined the editorial board of the new journal Inorganic Syntheses, the first volume of which appeared in 1939. He was an active participant and motivating force in its affairs, contributing sixteen syntheses and checking five others and serving as editor in chief of volume four (1953). Similarly, he helped establish the ACS Division of Inorganic Chemistry in 1957 and became its first chairman. In 1962 Inorganic Chemistry, the first such journal in the English language, began publication, largely through his efforts.
Bailar considered his most significant achievement to be his first work on coordination chemistry (carried out in 1934 with senior undergraduate student Robert W. Auten), which established the inorganic counterpart of the well-known organic Walden inversion reaction. This work resulted in a 37-part series, “The Stereochemistry of Complex Compounds,” issued until 1985. Although stereochemistry (the study of the spatial arrangement of atoms in molecules and its chemical and physical consequences) was his primary interest, he also studied electrochemistry, electrodeposition, electroplating, polarography, homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis, kinetics, stabilization of unusual oxidation states, dyes, and spectra. In 1959, with later (1990) Nobel laureate Elias J. Corey, he published a classic article on octahedral complexes that led to applications of conformational analysis to coordination compounds. Although an accomplished chemist and administrator, his first love was teaching, and he received the ACS Award in Chemical Education in 1961.
Long active in the ACS, Bailar served as chairman of several of its divisions (Chemical Education, 1947; Physical and Inorganic Chemistry, 1950; Inorganic Chemistry, 1957) and as national president (1959). A member of the editorial or publication boards of twelve journals, he received numerous honors and awards, including the Priestley Medal (the ACS’s highest award, 1964) and the only Werner Gold Medal (1966) ever awarded by the Swiss Chemical Society. He was also the first recipient of the University of Illinois’s John C. Bailar, Jr., Medal, named in his honor. After retiring in 1972, he continued to spend seven, rather than his previous twelve, hours in his office. He died of a sudden heart attack in Urbana, Illinois. A Bailar Fellowship for chemistry graduate students was established at the university in his honor.
The resurgence of inorganic chemistry after World War II, known as “the renaissance of inorganic chemistry,” owed much to the pioneering efforts of Bailar, who also, more than any other person, was responsible for the advancement of coordination chemistry in the United States.
Bailar’s personal papers are in the Archive Library of the University of Illinois, Urbana. In addition to his 338 publications, which include two patents and fifty-eight reviews, Bailar wrote, co-wrote, or edited nine monographs, texts, or laboratory manuals. The Chemistry of the Coordination Compounds (1956), written with twenty-four of his former students, summarized almost every aspect of the field. In “The Paradox of Alpha Chi Sigma,” Hexagon of Alpha Chi Sigma 54 (1963): 3, 4, 11, he discusses his early life and career. An interview with A. B. P. Lever is “A Celebration of Inorganic Lives: Interview of John Bailar,” Coordination Chemistry Reviews 106 (1990): 1–23. Biographical articles include George B. Kauffman, “Éloge: John C. Bailar, Jr.,” Journal of Coordination Chemistry 28 (1993): 183–89; Kauffman et al., “John C. Bailar, Jr. (1904–1991): Father of Coordination Chemistry in the United States,” Coordination Chemistry Reviews 128 (1993): 1–48, which provides six portraits, a complete bibliography, and lists of Ph.D. and postdoctoral students); and Kauffman et al., “John C. Bailar, Jr. (1904–1991): Father of U.S. Coordination Chemistry,” in Coordination Chemistry: A Century of Progress, ed. Kauffman (1994), pp. 74–80. Obituaries are in Chemical and Engineering News 69, no. 43 (28 Oct. 1991): 46–47; and University of Illinois School of Chemical Sciences Alumni Newsletter (Fall 1991), insert; and by Stanley Kirschner, “John C. Bailar, Jr.: A Fond Remembrance of the Impact of Personality on Chemical Research and Education,” American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Education Newsletter (Fall 1992), p. 16.