History Project

The Southern California Section celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011. With the exception of a scrapbook commemorating the 25th anniversary, we know of no physical records of the section prior to 1946. All information about the early years of the section was found in the inaugural volume of SCALACS, where the editors had the fortunate insight to include articles featuring meeting minutes and reminiscences from the early years. This webpage is devoted to telling a story about the history of the section, as well as the Los Angeles area. Parts one through five of the story is ready for you to read. Author: Barbara Belmont

Part One: The Early Years (1901-1925)

The setting is Los Angeles, California, in the early 1900s. Although there is no natural harbor, and an inadequate supply of fresh water, the population of 100,000 is steadily growing, attracted by the mild climate and the possibilities a new life has to offer. The major industries are agriculture (orange groves), mining, reclamation, and construction. Chemists are entrepreneurs and assayers, eking out a living as consultants, or making sugar, soap, cement, and asphalt. There are four little colleges where the chemistry of any consequence is taught: the University of Southern California, Occidental, Throop (now Caltech), and Pomona. An electric railway system radiates from downtown Los Angeles to San Bernardino, Santa Ana, San Pedro, San Fernando, and Pasadena, making travel to and from Los Angeles logistically reasonable.

It is 1901, and eight chemists meet together in an office at the Los Angeles Soap Company. They decide to call themselves the Los Angeles Chemical Club and meet monthly over lunch and beer to discuss things they have learned that might result in a prosperous collective manufacturing venture. By 1903, the group has doubled in size, and they now call themselves The Los Angeles Chemical and Metallurgical Club to be more inclusive of the member assayers who earn their living averting mining scams and swindles.

By 1910, these monthly meetings have grown to 20-25 people. Someone is always prepared to give a brief review of his own work, after which follows a free-for-all discussion or good-natured argument about whether the speaker knows what he is talking about. Inspired by a visiting entourage of American Chemical Society officials earlier in the year, club member Dr. Laird Stabler, USC Professor, oil refinery consultant, and ACS member originating from Berkeley California, petition the American Chemical Society to establish a local section in Los Angeles. On February 11, 1911, the newly chartered Southern California Section of the ACS, consisting now of 60 members, holds its first official monthly meeting. The meeting topic, “Our Smoke Nuisance”, is about the Los Angeles basin’s problem with atmospheric haze due to smoke particulate.

By 1914, the year the Panama Canal is completed, the first wharf of the 15-year-old San Pedro Harbor construction project opens. San Pedro, suddenly 8000 miles closer to the Atlantic coast, becomes the busiest harbor on the West Coast. Los Angeles begins to bustle with business. Luckily, the prior year saw the completion of the Owens River project, which brought 26 million gallons per day of drinking water to thirsty Los Angelenos. Also in 1914, the area of the Southern California Section’s activities expands from a 75-mile radius around LA, to include the entire south half of the state.

During World War I, the Lockheed and Donald Douglas aerospace plants are established in the area. Also established during this time (1917) is the first Southern California Section High School Chemistry Contest. The winner is from Nordhoff High School.

Oil is discovered all under the basin. The population soars to 1 million by 1920, 2 million by 1930 due to the resulting real estate boom. Chemists are in greater demand and can find employment in the oil industry, aerospace industry, and the growing eastern-transplant chemical manufacturing industry. Southern California ACS membership climbed from 60 in 1920 to 450 in 1925. The American Chemical Society holds its National Convention in Los Angeles in 1925. Angelenos begin their courtship with the automobile, adding exhaust to the notorious particulate pollution problem in the Los Angeles basin.

Part Two: The Expansion Era (1929-1955)

The Great Depression hits the US Economy in 1929. The dreams of the growing middle class of Los Angeles are shattered. Despite the hard and homeless times for many of this era, the oil, motion picture, and aerospace industries attract even more people to Los Angeles in search of a better life. Braun Corporation, DuPont de Nemours, Los Angeles Chemical Company, Los Angeles Soap Company, as well as Lockheed, Douglas Aircraft, local universities, and small analytical laboratories, support the local chemists through the economic slump. Los Angeles is host to the Olympic games in 1932. Albert Einstein flees Nazi Germany in 1933, the same year Angelenos feel their first massive earthquake, epicentered in Long Beach. American Crystal Sugar Company, Pacific Metals Co, California Flaxseed Co, Dow Chemical, General Chemical, and Pacific Coast Borax become corporate members of the Southern California Section in 1936, the same year economic recovery begins and UCLA becomes a Ph.D.-granting institution.

In 1939, the Southern California Section celebrates its 25th Anniversary with much fanfare from well-wishers of the ACS establishment throughout the nation. Union Station opens for business, on the site of LA’s original Chinatown, across the way from LA’s original pueblo (Olvera Street). Angelenos pay no attention because they’re consumed by their cars. The following year the West’s first freeway, The Arroyo Parkway, is opened, in a ceremony involving local Native Americans formally granting the Arroyo land to the government. Adventure-spirited car lovers careen down the parkway at the face-flattening speed limit of 35 MPH. Filtrol, Max Factor, and Eastman Kodak become corporate members of the Southern California Section in 1940. The San Diego Section springs forth in 1941, the same year the United States enters World War II. Present-day’s Griffith Park Travel Town and Verdugo Hills Golf Course become sites used to host detained Angelenos of Japanese descent.

By the time the war ends in 1945, Union Oil, Shell Oil, and Monsanto Company are corporate members of the Southern California Section. Pacific Electric Railway’s Red Car enjoys a brief resurgence of popularity, but can’t compete with the gas-powered cars supplied by the abundant petrochemical companies in the area. The once-rural landscape is now decorated with oil well pumps from Wilmington to Echo Park. The Southern California Section launches its inaugural edition of SCALACS magazine, riding on the productively motivating coattails of post-war optimism. The section is 1281 members strong in 1945, one year before the Mojave Section breaks away and makes a name for itself.

After World War II, Los Angeles becomes a major chemical-producing and oil-refining district, vital to the Nation’s economy. Southern California universities are at the forefront of scientific education and physical/chemical science research. Los Angeles is a great place for the industrial chemist to be, offering employment in rubber, paper, cement, ceramics, soap, steel, plastics, aerospace, and electronics industries. Notable section Councilors of this era are Gordon Alles, Arnold O. Beckman, and Roger Truesdail.

The camaraderie of the chemists is high. It is a time for solidarity, support, and fraternization, as indicated by the abundance of specialized clubs for technical types: American Electroplating Society, California Instrument Society, California Natural Gas Association, LA Paint and Varnish Production Club, Society of Plastics Industry, LA Rubber Group, etc. Typical Southern California Dinner meeting attendance is 300-400 people. In addition to gathering to share professional knowledge and ideas, the section holds well-attended dinner dances and sing-alongs. Some of the sing-alongs feature the DOWbert & SHELLivan UNIONeers, which parody the popular Gilbert and Sullivan tunes of the time with twisted nerdy lyrics. The public outreach of the section is tremendous. In 1948, the section sponsors a radio show called “Chemists in Action,” featuring lectures, entertaining skits, and the DOWbert & SHELLivan UNIONeers. After television becomes accessible, the program moves to KTLA and is broadcasted with regularity until the late 1950s. Dodger Stadium is built in 1955, after moving a cemetery existing in Chavez Ravine to another location. The population of Los Angeles is approximately 1 million. And if it weren’t for the persistent haze in the air, life couldn’t be better for the chemists of this era.

Part Three: Innocence Lost (1954-1980)

It is the mid-1950s, and local chemists are proud that one of their very own, Linus Pauling, is the first Southern California Section chemist to be awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry (1954). There is a proliferation of technical societies in L.A.; The Los Angeles Technical Societies Council organizes itself in 1956 with 26 charter members, each an organization of technical/scientific professionals. Advances in chemistry bring advances in technology and scientific understanding. By the time the Russians launch Sputnik in 1957, eminent L.A. chemists, long suspecting that our increasingly poor air quality has less to do with particulate pollution than chemistry, suggest that chemical reactions between reactive volatiles and the sun increase the area’s ozone to unhealthful levels. ACS members write irate letters to SCALACS challenging the heretical idea that automobile exhaust contributes to bad air quality. Nevertheless, the Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board is established to consider the options for exhaust control.

The skyline of Los Angeles that can be seen changes dramatically over the next 10 years after a local ordinance that had prohibited high-rise buildings is overturned. An increase in automobile ownership and expansion of the freeways to accommodate them conspire to kill the once-beloved Red Car public transportation system. The last remaining trolley ceases operation in 1961. In the same year, the Southern California Section, inspired by the steadily stellar quality of chemistry research throughout the local area, awards its first annual Richard C. Tolman Medal to William G. Young in recognition of Southern Californians’ contributions to the field.

The rapid growth and industrial development in the region are not without a price. Conscientious chemists and idealistic activists begin to recognize the effects of industrial pollution on health and the environment, to the dismay and denial of those of more innocent times. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, is both advocated and vilified in SCALACS magazine. An ardent defender of the benefits of DDT, a Montrose Chemical Company chemist challenges Carson’s supporters as alarmists in a SCALACS letter to the editor.

In 1963, the Southern California Section hosts its 3rd National ACS meeting. The chemical business is still hopping, as indicated by the tremendous financial support local companies give to the annual High School Chemistry Contest. Among the roster of 1963 contributors are Aerojet-General, Amercoat, American Potash, Applied Physics Corp., Baxter Inc., Dun-Edwards, Beckman Instruments, Bray Oil, Dow Chemical, General Film Laboratory, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Hughes Aircraft, Lockheed Aircraft, Montrose Chemical Co., Nalco Chemical, Papermate Manufacturing, Ralph Parsons Co., Pfizer, Pilot Chemical, Productol, Standard Oil, Stauffer Chemical, Tretolite, Union Oil, US Borax, Van Camp Sea Food, and Van Waters and Rogers.

The 1960s are turbulent times throughout the nation, for the youth with their ideals are awakening to anti-war sentiments and civil rights activism. Despite the National Civil Rights Act of 1964, racial tensions are high in Los Angeles, culminating in the 6-day Watts Riot in 1965. The smoke from the resulting arson fires fills the L.A. basin, but it’s hard to tell the difference from the less-than-one-block visibility of a typical summer afternoon. For the first time in a generation, families and friends fear the fate of their young men called up by the Selective Service to the Viet Nam War. Timothy Leary advises the hip and young to “Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out.” Robert Kennedy, who challenges the nation to “dream things that never were and ask why not”, appears to be America’s next great hope until he is assassinated in 1969 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Concern for the sustainability of natural resources and health prevails over business interests, and the Environmental Protection Agency is established in 1970. The same year, the Clean Air Act is passed, requiring local districts to attain target air quality standards…” or else” — the “or else” being withholding of Federal Highway Development funding. Southern California is caught on a double-edged sword – it needs the funding to supply the highways to relieve the congestion it has from all the cars on the road – and begins regulating automobile exhaust, as well as stationary and chemical sources of air pollution. The traffic congestion has its impact on Southern California Section meetings, already indicated by the necessity of cleaving off the Orange County Section in the mid-60s. It becomes increasingly more difficult for hundreds of ACS members to make it across the city for an event, and meetings drop in attendance from 300 to 100. Despite that, Section Members have creative meeting topics and find ways to socialize as well as share professional information.

The violent Sylmar earthquake abruptly awakens Southern Californians in February 1971. In 1974, chemists are also shaken up by Rowland and Molina’s controversial theory of ozone depletion. Escalating land prices, anti-pollution regulations, the oil crisis, and the worst recession in 40 years drive industry out of Los Angeles County. Many chemists leave town throughout the 1970s to follow employment opportunities, and others blame the pro-environment regulations for their forced early retirement. Chemists who can find a job have a new field of biotechnology to grow with. Some chemists capitalize on the regulatory atmosphere and start up environmental testing laboratories just in time to benefit from the Superfund Law passed in 1980.

The composition of the Southern California Section ACS membership changes from majority industrial to almost equal representation from industry and academia. Los Angeles County begins cleaning up after the decades-long party of unplanned growth and expansive manufacturing. The innocence and enthusiasm of the early years are lost, as the younger generation of chemists copes with industrial and regulatory transitions.

Part Four: Recent Years (1981-2001)

The flower children of the late 60s and early 70s mature for the job market of the early 1980s, just in time for a recession, chemical manufacturing migration out of California, and multiple job terminations. Nevertheless, the marvelous “This Month in Chemical History” debuts in 1982. In that same year, the Section resurrects the Undergraduate Research Conference in Chemistry and Biochemistry years gone by. SCALACS, previously a collaboration of the Orange County, San Gorgonio, and Southern California Sections, becomes solely supported by the Southern California Section in 1983, due to the financial constraints of the other two sections. By the mid-1980s, the Southern California Section has used up most of its savings to support the cost of the program and SCALACS’ expenditure, and is considered by National ACS to be a “section in trouble.”

During the introspection of the resulting austerity, section leadership realizes that it has been blessed with devoted volunteers, and decides to create an Award for Distinguished Service to the Section. The Whittier earthquake demolishes the Calstate LA chemistry lab in 1987, days before the Section kicks off its first-ever National Chemistry Day Celebration. The following year, the first Award for Distinguished Service is given to Agnes Ann Green in 1988, the year the National ACS Convention is hosted by Southern California. That same year, UCLA’s Donald Cram is awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Southern Californians finally realize that they need a better public transportation system (like the one forsaken back in 1960), and Los Angeles opens the Blue Line, the first leg of a network of light rail public transportation, in 1990. As commuters get used to the possibilities of transportation mode change, the Southern California Section undergoes a big change that results in a relocation of the Section Office, an entry into the computer age, and fiscal recovery. The 1990s are tumultuous and socially twisted times in Los Angeles with a series of major earthquakes interspersed with the Rodney King riots, the consolidation/migration of the aerospace industry, the conviction of the Menendez brothers, the acquittal of OJ (so he can search for the real killer), and the strongest El Nino season of record. In 1996, the California Los Padres Section forms from the part of the Southern California Section that encompasses Ventura County north through Central California. Despite the social and structural upheaval, it is a decade of pride for the chemists of Southern California: our own Rudy Marcus, George Olah, Paul Boyer, and Ahmed Zewail are recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1992, 1994, 1997, and 1999, respectively.

Although scientists are currently one of LA’s most important products (and assets), Southern California ACS industrial chemists work for very small businesses; they are often one of few or the only chemist. Although many chemists earn their living in conventional chemistry jobs, the manufacturing-unfriendly regulatory environment pushes chemists to the realm of service, consulting, and entrepreneurism (not much different than where this story started). The entrepreneurial chemistry of the new millennium involves green catalysis, biotechnology, or nanotechnology.

Los Angeles now enjoys the cleanest air since monitoring started, thanks to stringent emissions regulations, and Southern Californians still love their cars.

Part Five: The New Millenium (2001-2011)

It is now 2011, the 100-year anniversary of the commencement of the Southern California Section of the American Chemical Society. We’ve been holding our collective breath since September 11, 2001, waiting for the next explosive shoe to drop. The world is in turmoil, the weather is whacky, and we are enduring the Great Recession brought on by the collapse of the nation’s financial sector and the housing bubble in 2008. The employment outlook for graduating chemists is bleak nationwide, let alone in Los Angeles County.

Los Angeles County’s population is nearly 10 million, having increased 10-fold since the first chemists and assayers of the Los Angeles Chemical and Metallurgy Club began meeting in the early 1900s. Chemists who have jobs work in the pharmaceutical, petroleum, and biotechnology industries, the nascent nanotechnology and green catalysis industries, or in chemical sales, service, consulting, or education sectors.

In the past 20 years, the Los Angeles public transportation system has diffracted into a rainbow of routes – the Blue, Red, Green, Gold, Purple, Orange, and Silver Lines – encircling and looping through the major metropolitan areas. Still, it is difficult to go to many places without an automobile, and there are so many automobiles on the road that it is difficult to go to any place at all. California’s strict air pollution control laws help keep smog levels lower than they were in the 1960s, but in the past decade, the East San Gabriel Valley has experienced a significant increase in the number of days the ozone concentration has exceeded Federal Health Standards.

The Southern California Section membership has hovered around 2600 people since 1996 when our northernmost territory set out on its own as the Los Padres Section. SCALACS Magazine was briefly reunited as a tri-section publication with Orange County and San Gorgonio Sections. Our latest claim to Nobel Laureate among our members is Robert Grubbs (2005). Our most recent moment of pride is the news that Joe Tung of Whitney High School won a Gold Medal at the International Chemistry Olympiad in the summer of 2011.

Section volunteers are inspired and motivated by youth and hope, and promote an active community outreach program to bring the message of science to children of all ages. From Project SEED for economically disadvantaged high school students to Expanding Your Horizons and the Sally Ride Festival for middle school girls, SCALACS people encourage youth to embrace math and science. As we recruit our future scientists in these uncertain times, we take to heart the lesson this author learned from an impulsive dig through our Section’s boxes of artifacts 10 years ago: history isn’t much different from the present.


Some particular and perhaps peculiar observations came to mind when I was piecing together the facts about the history of the Southern California Section. I thought I would share them with you.

I was surprised to learn just how “advanced” Los Angeles was back in the early 1900’s. I had never imagined that industry and culture could be sophisticated without the technology I grew up with. Despite its reputation for its danger and roughness, Los Angeles attracted a lot of people, and business followed. I found myself admiring the early adventuresome chemists of Los Angeles, who, by virtue of having no other means, were forced to figure a market for their skills. Nowadays, how many of us would move to a new frontier without being assured that a job was waiting? Lesson learned: People thrive and prosper, even in uncertain times and dangerous places.

Another thing I noticed during my archival dig was that even as early as 1915 or so, Section Elders were putting out the call for fresh young volunteers. (Of course, the soliciting phrase was “looking for young men to help with…”, but that’s another story.) Evidence upon evidence suggests that the majority of very active Section volunteers throughout these past century have been in the…um…mature chemists demographic. Despite this obvious sociological pattern of volunteerism, we’ve never succumbed to the idea that it was hopeless trying to engage younger chemists. When one comes along to help or participate, we feel like we’ve really succeeded in outreach. Lessons learned: People don’t give up even if it seems hopeless, and youth invigorates our mission.

The final observation I want to share is about the chemists who plied their trade and joined in on the activities bandwagon during the heyday of Los Angeles chemistry in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Our long-term members frequently and fondly recount those days of professional pride, and camaraderie, and wonder if the enthusiasm of those days will ever be recaptured. Some people say that the business and cultural environments have changed so much that the heyday will never come back. That may be so, but I think that there was a different reason for the momentum of those days. I suggest that those chemists in that post-war era were caught up in the solidarity, common experiences, and euphoria of being or knowing survivors and heroes. Sort of like the high-fiving that accompanies the people exiting an adrenaline-filled roller coaster ride. Lesson learned: People come together in times of common hardship and rejoice together when it is over.

The Southern California Section celebrates its 100 year anniversary this year. In the years to come, I will apply the lessons I learned from an impulsive dig through our Section’s boxes of artifacts to my own life experiences, and hope that you do the same. In these difficult times, we can seek comfort from these lessons:

  • We thrive even in uncertain times.
  • We support one another during hardship.
  • We don’t give up hope.
  • What goes around comes around.

Barbara Belmont, Treasurer & Part-time SCALACS Historian

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