Spring 1998

Classic D.T.

By Elizabeth Walker

Adjectives have a way of attaching themselves to people. Given voice, they seldom let go. But it's the anecdotes behind the adjectives that reveal the strength and fidelity of their hold.

Professor David Todd was a man of prodigious intellect and generous spirit. That's how colleague James Dittami, head of WPI's Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, described Todd at a memorial service held in October 1997. Dittami supposedly took over some of Todd's responsibilities in the area of organic chemistry when he retired in 1987.

"There were two problems with that," Dittami notes. "First, Dave was irreplaceable; second, he never left."

Dittami, like most of his colleagues, has a file fat with articles, clippings and notes from Todd written on the backs of recycled exams, memos and envelopes. He pointed to a New York Times article covered with notes and suggestions that Todd had sent him. The clipping resulted in funding for Dittami.

"Dave was a catalyst," he says. "He would do his work and then do yours. He kept up with what everyone was doing and filled in the holes. He kept everyone informed - and not just about chemistry. He talked about civil rights in Africa, about Cuba, or about new scientific discoveries - whatever he felt deserved our attention. He was also a watchdog of literature. He'd correct the grammar in journal articles he'd read and send marked-up copies back to the editors."

Ask people about David Todd, and the adjectives begin to fly. Generous, frugal, vigorous, curious, intellectual, passionate, principled, impulsive, eccentric. He was noted for "daring rectitude" and was called a "joyous atheist who attended Unitarian church services religiously." He cared deeply about the safety of his students in the lab, but was known to drive on tires so bald they cupped at the edges. He carefully recorded his results on the lined paper of lab books, but entrusted countless scientific insights and formulas to any scrap of paper at hand. Though a legendary bread maker who taught students the chemistry of leavening, he was known to whip up a fairly hideous meat loaf on occasion.

Todd wore these oxymoronic descriptors as easily as he wore his eclectic wardrobe. After 30 years on the organic chemistry faculty at WPI and a decade of alleged retirement, Todd officially returned to campus last summer with his signature look intact. He sported a serious lack of agreement in socks, Rorschach-quality ink stained shirts, and sweaters well ventilated by years of chemical burns. One of his retirement gifts from the department in 1987 had been a "pair" of gloves, one brown and one black, "to match his other pair."

In an essay about her grandfather that accompanied her college applications, Lauren Todd wrote, "Last weekend he came to my cross-country race dressed in his characteristic grandpa outfit: a tightly fitting wool sweater, wrinkled pants pulled above his waist, and shoes with 'holed' socks protruding from the sides...he just doesn't care about most material things. He cares more about chemistry, writing, reading and learning."

By Aug. 12, 1997, Todd had come nearly full circle in his 40-year relationship with WPI. More than a decade after he had officially, if not actually, retired, he accepted an appointment to teach a full load of organic chemistry classes and labs through the 1997-98 academic year. His enthusiasm showed in the course materials he painstakingly revised, in the experiments he carefully planned, and in the collection of lichens he had gathered in Alaska and divided among small dishes interspersed with a benchload of flasks and outmoded, but to his mind "perfectly serviceable," equipment. He was prepared - though not for what was to happen that day.

Todd stopped by Goddard Hall to check on his lab bench and to share the blueberries he had recently gathered with his son, Chris, in Alaska. He stopped by the Worcester Public Library, and then called his wife, Connie, to say he was heading home with blueberries and salmon from Alaska and fresh bread. Less than 10 miles from their Woodstock, Vt., summer house, he suffered a massive heart attack that precipitated a fatal car accident.

At his core, Todd was a remarkable chemist who in his many relationships held himself to the same high standard that he carefully nurtured within his family and among his friends, colleagues and students. Those relationships evolved like the active science of change that consumed him. Students became colleagues; colleagues became friends; friends became family; grandchildren became traveling companions. He seemed to share a special interest with each one: classical music, cooking, hiking, beekeeping or a favorite author. All who knew him treasure at least one "classic" story or image that portrays his unorthodox approach to his professional and personal lives, which were one and the same.

"A big, tall guy in shorts." That was Professor Stephen Weininger's first image of Todd, his soon-to-be colleague and eventual friend in what was then WPI's Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Department. Weininger met Todd over three decades ago while enjoying afternoon tea in England.

"I still have a vivid impression of the first time I saw David," Weininger says. "I was in Durham, and, by phone and letter, had just negotiated a job at WPI. I had never met anyone from WPI. It was four o'clock in the afternoon and I was having tea, as usual, when this big, tall, vigorous guy in shorts dropped by and introduced himself. It was 'vintage D.T.' to appear like that."

Weininger quickly learned that his new colleague had no patience with preliminaries and that he might call at any hour to discuss a chemistry problem or announce a new or interesting result. "My wife got used to the phone ringing at midnight," he says. "I learned to get the receiver to my head quickly when David called, because as soon as you picked up, he'd start talking."

Todd had eclectic interests, including England and English literature. He made an annual walking summer tour of England, confessing that he had no interest in seeing any other country.

Todd was taking his annual summer walking tour of the English coast when he detoured to meet his new colleague. He would walk from one bed and breakfast to the next, taking up his walk each year from where he had stopped the summer before. In later years he would invite one or another of his grandchildren to join him. His love of England and English literature paralleled his passion for chemistry. He told his family he had no desire to visit any other country.

Todd's heart was as large as his all-encompassing intellect, according to Dittami. (He underscores the words kind and compassionate in the litany of adjectives that trail Todd to wherever his name is mentioned.) "Dave opened his heart and his home to his colleagues and his students. He'd listen to people and anticipate the kind of help they needed. He'd offer before you'd asked him. He always invited students to his home for holidays if they weren't able to be with their families."

Every year Todd would write a poem that he would read aloud at the department Christmas party. To the annual amazement of his colleagues, he somehow rhymed everyone's name, including those of the graduate students, many of whom had extremely difficult names to rhyme in English. No one was ever left out.

Todd's interest in chemistry developed at a young age. He earned his bachelor's degree at Swarthmore in 1938, the year he caught that impressive string of fish on an outing in Virginia, and went on to graduate school at Harvard, in the days when "graduate students still cooked their dinners over their Bunsen burners."

Todd knew he wanted to be a chemist by age 12, according to his son, Larry. After several years in a Swiss boarding school, he graduated from the private Friends-Sidwell School in Washington, D.C., and went on to Swarthmore College, where he immersed himself in the discipline that was to become his driving passion. In 1938, he earned his bachelor's degree and went on to graduate school at Harvard, where he earned a doctorate in chemistry in 1942. The timing of his graduation could have been difficult for a pacifist like Todd. Fortunately, his "war research" (he made shark repellent at Harvard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) earned him a deferment. He held appointments at Cornell, Amherst College and the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, before joining the WPI faculty in 1957.

Todd was a demanding teacher, but students liked him because he was interested in what interested them, Dittami says. Students who didn't take to his brand of teaching during their years on campus apparently had second thoughts later on. The name that appeared most often on surveys that asked alumni to name a professor they had come to appreciate since leaving campus was Todd's. Former students remembered how well he prepared them for the challenges they encountered after graduation. Todd often told Larry that the most important part of college happened outside the classroom.

The wide range of issues and applications that Todd brought into his labs touched Ed Kleinman '72. The intensity of the professor's devotion to chemistry and teaching also made a deep impression on the organic chemistry convert. Kleinman, a principal research investigator at Pfizer Central Research in Groton, Conn., was a chemical engineering major at WPI who shifted his focus to organic chemistry after one term in Todd's class and lab. Today he's involved in immunology and the development of drugs to treat asthma.

"Dave was my first organic chemistry instructor and that changed everything for me," Kleinman says. "To say that he was devoted to chemistry would be an understatement. He taught from the soul and from every limb of his body. He would tell us about his work with L-dopa, a compound that is used to treat people with Parkinson's disease. He was trying to make it cheaper. During lab, he would discuss issues outside of chemistry. He had so many political and cultural interests."

Kleinman could see that not everyone appreciated Todd's blend of humor and gentle sarcasm, but it inspired him to go on to the University of California, Berkeley, and earn a doctorate. He dedicated his thesis to Todd, with whom he had done research as an undergraduate.

"Some students were overwhelmed by Dave, so reactions were mixed," Kleinman says. "He was quick to point out the flaws in people's logic - especially that of politicians. He wouldn't insult you, but he'd insult your behavior just to wake you up. You'd have to be asleep not to understand his lab briefings. I was impressed that he swept up broken glass himself and wanted to do experiments with students. He had great faith in human nature and he maintained lifelong commitments with his students."

Kleinman felt that commitment "up close and personal," even while he was attending graduate school 3,000 miles from the WPI campus. "I had gone home for dinner one night and when I got back to the lab, I found a scrap of paper on my bench with a note I could hardly read," he says. "It was from Dave. It said, 'I thought graduate students still cooked their dinners over their Bunsen burners.' Fortunately, I caught up with him the next day."

Todd's years in the lab challenging his students provided him the fodder and stimulus to write a lab manual. Experimental Organic Chemistry, published by Prentice Hall in 1979, was widely adopted and included many inside jokes that delighted colleagues and former students like Kleinman.

"Chemists have this insult they reserve for each other," says Larry Todd. "For experiments and such that go from A to Z, they say, 'That's cookbook chemistry.' To have fun with that, my dad included two recipes in his textbook, one for oatmeal molasses bread and the other for chocolate chip ice cream. He used to teach the chemistry of bread- and ice cream-making back when they offered Intersession classes at WPI. One reviewer suggested that the bread recipe alone was worth the price of the book."

In addition to experiments in bread preparation and ice cream synthesis, Todd included a section on student lab errors. On page 82 he wrote, "These errors have all been committed by college students in spite of careful instruction and close supervision. Some are dangerous, some safe, but silly."Mr. N. (here N. approaches infinity) did a suction filtration, using his aspirator trap without closing the pressure-release pinchcock. It took him a long time." Miss R. boiled a 50 percent water-alcohol solution in an open beaker with a flame 'because water doesn't burn.'"

After recounting more than two dozen errors, many of which were annotated with Todd's wry comments, he finished the section with an example of an error committed by "Prof. T."

Todd's work was also published in the Journal of Chemical Education and other chemical journals and scholarly publications. He regularly contributed to a specialty column in Chemical and Engineering News and was a favorite reviewer of editors who continued sending him books and articles long after his retirement. He would correct the grammar as well as the science. He wrote single-spaced on an old manual typewriter.

One of Todd's more whimsically titled publications was precipitated by an unexpected time-dependent result he observed in the lab at Pomona College, where he taught for several years while in retirement. After he had set up a reaction to clarify a problem a student had had in the lab, Todd was called away by a department secretary to attend a lunch that lasted longer than he anticipated. The reaction was long past completion when he returned but, to his discerning eye, yielded the resolution to the problem. He published his findings, entitled "The Evelyn Effect." The article is still cited in the literature, according to Dittami. (You can guess the secretary's name.)

Todd's response to retirement was to go back to school and get a job. He enrolled at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement. "He was driven to teach," says colleague and friend Alvin Weiss, a chemical engineer who joined the WPI faculty in 1966. "When Dave retired, he took jobs all over the country, from Pennsylvania to Poughkeepsie to Pomona College in California. He also taught at Vassar and Juniata colleges. He often would fill in for people on sabbatical."

Todd's greatest passion was chemistry; when he died, he left a workbench overflowing with new experiments.

Todd had every chemical known to man since 1910, all in the most colorful little containers, according to Al Weiss. "Dave was an old-school organic chemist who used large amounts of chemicals. Yet he was one of the first to develop a micro-scale lab."

That effort garnered Todd a $1,000 grant from DuPont several months before his retirement was official. He wrote to DuPont asking for the seed money to set up a micro-scale chemistry lab. When he received the grant, he wrote to thank the company's committee on educational aid from saving him from what he considered the twin terrors of retirement, Florida and shuffleboard.

Todd never met a chemical he didn't like. An inveterate recycler, he kept them all - at times to the dismay of David Messier, chemistry lab manager and WPI's environmental health and safety officer. "D.T. was a gentle man with a gazillion stories that he generously shared," Messier says. "He was a safety ally, but he was also a pack rat. I'm responsible for hazardous waste disposal. I'd do an inspection and weed through the chemicals, setting aside those that would need to be disposed of. Dave would reclaim the materials at night, when he still had a key to where they were kept."

Messier and Todd shared an interest in beekeeping. "I'm a beekeeper and D.T. loved honey, so we had a lot to talk about," Messier says. "He was always leaving me articles to read."

Todd was also known to talk with Messier at midnight when he couldn't find a certain chemical. "I never told him not to call," he says. "I just felt that that was D.T. and I needed to help him get what he needed. He used to have a key to the storage room by the loading dock. One day he mistook the alarm for the light switch. He couldn't hear the alarm, so the building had been evacuated before he came out wondering why everyone was outside."

If the lab was Todd's second home, the library was his third, according to Al Weiss, who remains in awe of the depth and breadth of Todd's interests and reading. "Dave was always in libraries," he says. "A favorite was the Widener at Harvard, his alma mater. Half the time, it was for chemistry, the other half it was for English literature. He was trying to identify the sources of obscure quotations for the NEMO Almanac, a publication of elite literary scholars. We often dined together. Sometimes, between dinner and a PBS show we all enjoyed, he'd run to a library to do a little work."

Todd loved challenges. Finding solutions is what drove him through life and lab. Yet little in his early years suggested that he would encounter many limits. He was born in 1916 in New York City to parents who socialized with and apparently spoke their minds to the movers and shakers of their day. Todd grew up in the comfortable environs of Chevy Chase, outside of Washington, D.C. His mother, a Bryn Mawr graduate, was in and out of the White House. His father was a newspaperman who had been a bureau chief in the 1930s for the Russian news agency TASS. Both parents had a definite tilt to the left. David told Larry Todd about being upset once when his mother made him give his Christmas apple to labor leader Eugene Debs, founder of the American Socialist Party, when they met him at Union Station in Washington.

Steve Weininger remembers Todd's showing him a copy of a letter author Sinclair Lewis sent his father. Apparently the reputedly strong-willed Mrs. Todd would not allow her husband to entertain Lewis in their home because he drank. Both parents were Socialists and activists who passed on to their children high moral standards, their lack of concern for material goods, and their strong Quaker belief in service to others. The children chose different paths, but pursued them passionately. In fact, Todd's sister, Mary, became an ardent follower of Fidel Castro and his politics. She now lives in Cuba.

The Todds' highly principled approach to child rearing led to David's staunch and vigorous defense of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irene Joliot-Curie, who was denied membership in the American Chemical Society in 1953 because of her pro-Communist involvements. Todd's activism found outlets through his leadership positions in the local ACLU chapter and in advocating for accommodations for students with disabilities. He was also quick to defend underdogs and unpopular causes when he believed it was the right thing to do. He was a prolific writer of letters to the editor and anyone else he thought should rethink a position. Service was also a constant thread through his life. For years, he took it upon himself to organize the annual sale of UNICEF cards in Worcester.

When he returned to WPI to teach late last summer after his unorthodox decade of retirement, David Todd, at 81, had not changed or slowed, physically or intellectually. Nor had his great passion for every aspect of organic chemistry waned in the slightest. As Al Weiss notes, he had kept up, was still "hot in his field." Gravity's gentle pull on his shoulders was the only sign that time had marched on. It was clear that Todd still stepped lively to that other drummer.

It also was obvious that Todd still managed to elude the grip of the clock hands that tell most of us when not to call other people. Late-night phone calls, wee-hour visits to the lab, and notes and formulas scribbled on the backs of old phone bills or placemats remained his calling cards. Though the chemists on campus (and their spouses) are assured of sleeping through the night these days, most would give up a good night's sleep for an occasional midnight ring that announced the magic that was David Todd.

Walker is a freelance writer who has written extensively about higher education. She contributed to our coverage of WPI's strategic planning initiative in the Fall 1997 WPI Journal.

Fund, Symposium Honor Todd's Memory

The family of David Todd has established a memorial fund that will benefit WPI's Chemistry and Biochemistry Department and its students. Contributions may be sent to:

David Todd Memorial Fund
University Relations Office
100 Institute Road
Worcester, MA 01609-2280

On Friday, Oct. 2, 1998, the day before WPI's Homecoming, the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department will hold a special symposium in Todd's honor. Details of the afternoon symposium have not yet been announced. For more information, please contact the department at 508-831-5371.

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:52:52 EDT 1999