Department of

Chemical Engineering

Designing molecular technology for the 21st century with biology and chemistry

Department History

By Andrew Zydney and Thomas Daubert.

William H. Walker, founder of Chemical Engineering at Penn State.

The study of chemical engineering at Penn State has its roots in the discipline of chemistry, which was established as a separate program of study (distinct from the general sciences) in 1888. The program was led by Dr. George Gilbert Pond until his death in 1920. The first B.S. degree in Chemistry was given to William H. Walker in 1890. Walker then went to Göttingen where he received his Ph.D. degree in 1892. He returned to Penn State as an instructor in Chemistry before moving to MIT in 1894 to help found the chemical engineering program there - Walker is widely recognized as the father of chemical engineering for his efforts at MIT. The early chemical industry in the U.S. was focused on the production of a few widely used bulk chemicals like sulfuric acid and alkali. These were both produced in continuous processes, requiring simple chemistry but fairly complex engineering. The need for "chemical" engineers became even more pronounced with the development of the Haber process for the production of ammonia in 1909 and the subsequent scale-up of this process by Carl Bosch. William Walker established the School of Chemical Engineering Practice at MIT in 1917, and he, together with W.K. Lewis and W.H. McAdams, co-authored the first chemical engineering textbook in 1924, Principles of Chemical Engineering. Walker retained close ties to Penn State, serving on the Board of Trustees of what was then the Pennsylvania State College in the 1920's.

Industrial Chemistry Program - 1902

Photo of Walker Chemistry Building on the University Park Campus, circa 1900.

Penn State introduced a curriculum in industrial chemistry in 1902 under the direction of Jesse B. Churchill, with the first two graduates receiving their degrees in 1906. The program was housed in The Chemistry and Physics Building, subsequently renamed Walker Laboratory, a 35,000 sq. ft. facility that was completed in 1890 for a cost of $45,000 (on the site of what is now Davey Laboratory). Walker Laboratory was the home of the entire Chemistry and Physics Departments until the first section of Pond Laboratory was built in 1918; Walker continued to house parts of the Chemistry program until it was demolished in 1969.

The new curriculum in industrial chemistry was groundbreaking in its emphasis on industrial unit processes and the manufacture of specific chemical compounds. The degree required 150 total credits including 15 credits in industrial chemistry (chemical processes, stoichiometry, a laboratory course, gas analysis, water analysis, and inspection trips), 40 credits in chemistry, and 23 credits in engineering (electrochemical, electrical, heat engines, hydraulics, and mechanics). The industrial chemistry laboratory included experiments involving the preparation of caustic soda, sodium sulfide, paper pulp, and nitrocellulose. The Industrial Chemistry program graduated 199 students from 1906 to 1924, and many of these alumni became leaders within the early chemical industry: W.A. Slater (1907) became Vice President of Gulf Oil, R.W. Ostermayer (1917) became President and Chairman of the Board of the Pennsylvania Industrial Chemical Company, M.W. Geiger (1921) became President of Davidson Chemical Company (subsequently a division of W.R. Grace), W.C. Decker (1922) became Chairman of the Board of Corning Glass, and S.F. Hinkle (1922) became President and Chairman of the Board of the Hershey Chocolate Corporation.


Seniors from the class of 1917 visit H. J. Heinz Co.

Chemical Engineering Beginnings - 1924

The first curriculum in chemical engineering, with an emphasis on unit operations like evaporation, distillation, absorption, heat transfer, and fluid flow, was introduced in 1924 using the text by Walker, Lewis, and McAdams as its foundation. This was at the same time that the School of Chemistry and Physics was established with Dr. Gerald Wendt as Dean. The first class of 11 Chemical Engineering graduates received their degrees on June 15, 1925; the Department averaged around 50 students each year through the 1960's. The first M.S. degree in Chemical Engineering was awarded in 1929 and the first Ph.D. was awarded in 1932. Edwin R. Gilliland received the second M.S. degree in Chemical Engineering in 1931 for his thesis on "Heat Transfer from Solids to Boiling Liquids"; he subsequently became Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT in 1961. Michael Cannon received his M.S. in 1932 and his Ph.D. in 1935; the latter involved a study of the light lubricating fraction of petroleum using a modified Ostwald viscometer that was subsequently produced by the Cannon Instrument Company. The undergraduate curriculum in Chemical Engineering continued to evolve, with a formal unit operations laboratory introduced in 1935 including bench-scale experiments in distillation, drying, and air-water interactions.

Merrell R. Fenske, Department head 1959 to 1969.

In 1929, Dean Whitmore recruited Merrell R. Fenske to Penn State from MIT where he had obtained his Sc.D. degree. Fenske helped establish the Petroleum Refining Laboratory, with world-class facilities for distillation research located in Pond Laboratories (originally built in 1918 with an addition occupied in 1930). Fenske began studies on the composition of the lower boiling fractions of Pennsylvania crude oil, attracting broad industrial and government support. Additional laboratory space was obtained in the Old College Power Plant in 1931; this was used until 1958 when it was demolished to erect the Hammond Building. As many as 70 chemical engineers and chemists were employed in the Petroleum Refining Laboratory during World War II, with the research done at Penn State helping establish the technologies used for producing aviation gasoline, hydraulic fluids, and lubricants, all of which were essential to the Allied war effort.

Dorothy Quiggle - first female science/engineering faculty member at Penn State.

Dorothy Quiggle joined the Petroleum Research Laboratory in 1929 as a research assistant. She earned her Ph.D. from the Department in 1936 based on her thesis "The Utilization of Pennsylvania Straight Run Gasolines," becoming the first woman to receive a doctoral degree in engineering from Penn State. Dr. Quiggle joined the chemical engineering faculty immediately thereafter, becoming the first female female faculty member in any of the science or engineering programs at Penn State. Quiggle retired in 1969, and continued to be an advocate for the advancement of women in science and engineering, serving as honorary chair of the first conference / reunion of Women in Engineering at Penn State in 1991.

Image caption: Dorothy Quiggle - first female science/engineering faculty member at Penn State.

Department of Chemical Engineering - 1948

Donald S Cryder, became head of Chemistry in 1948.

The Department of Chemical Engineering was separated from the Department of Chemistry in 1948, with Donald S. Cryder named as the first Chemical Engineering Department Head. Dr. Cryder received his B.S. degree in the industrial chemistry program at Penn State in 1920 before getting his Ph.D. at MIT. The faculty at this time included Floyd Carnahan (joined the Department in 1930), Arthur Rose (1930), Michael Cannon (1935), Jennings Jones (1941), Erwin Klaus (1943), Walter Braun (1943), and Elmer Tewksbury (1946), among others. Max Peters and Ed Williams received their Ph.D. degrees in 1951 and 1952, respectively; they both went on to long teaching careers in Chemical Engineering.

The Department experienced a period of significant growth in the 1950's and early 1960's with the hiring of Wallace (Wally) Lloyd and Charles Peiffer in 1956, Alfred Engel in 1959, Robert Kabel in 1963, Thomas Daubert in 1964, and Ronald Danner in 1967. These new faculty continued to build upon the Department's strengths in petroleum processing and lubrication while adding expertise in optimization, process dynamics, reaction kinetics, transport, and thermodynamics. This was also the period in which the chemical engineering discipline evolved from a focus on unit operations to a new paradigm based on transport phenomena - this transition is typically marked by the publication of the classical textbook Transport Phenomena by Bird, Stewart, and Lightfoot in 1960.

Chemical Engineering Unit 1, 1959.

Chemical Engineering Unit 1, 1959.

The Petroleum Refining Laboratory was officially merged into the Department of Chemical Engineering in 1959, with Merrell Fenske appointed as the new Department Head. Shortly thereafter, the Department was relocated to the newly constructed Chemical Engineering Unit 1 on Shortlidge Road, which was built for a total cost of $800,000. Chemical Engineering Unit 2 (the East wing) was completed in 1968; it originally included the Center for Air Environmental Studies on the second floor with the first floor devoted to classrooms, chemical engineering education, and graduate research laboratories and offices. The two units were subsequently connected and renamed as Fenske Laboratory in 1973 in honor of Merrell Fenske’s contributions to the field of chemical engineering and to Penn State. Fenske Lab continues to serve as the home of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Penn State.

Chemical Engineering in the College of Engineering - 1963

The Department of Chemical Engineering was merged into the College of Engineering in 1963 when Dr. Merritt A. Williamson was Dean. At the same time, the Departments of Biochemistry, Biophysics, Botany, Mathematics, Microbiology, and Zoology joined with Chemistry and Physics to establish the newly formed College of Science. Interest in the undergraduate program in chemical engineering remained strong, with 62 B.S. degrees granted in 1962-63 making Penn State the second largest chemical engineering program in the U.S. that year. James Ultman and Lee Eagleton joined in 1970 followed by J. Larry Duda in 1971, providing new expertise in transport phenomena, biomedical engineering, and polymer processing.

Lee C. Eagleton, Department head from 1970-1983.

Lee C. Eagleton served as Department Head from 1970 to 1983. It was during this period that Ron Danner and Tom Daubert were selected as principal investigators for the Data Compilation and Data Book projects of the Design Institute for Physical Properties (DIPPR®) of the AIChE and API, the premier cooperative physical property data effort in the U.S. M. Albert Vannice joined the Department in 1976 followed by John Tarbell, R. Nagarajan, Friedrich (Fred) Helfferich, and James Vrentas. This added important expertise in heterogeneous catalysis, applied mathematics, biomedical engineering, ion exchange, transport phenomena, chemical kinetics, and colloid and interfacial science. Interest in the undergraduate program grew steadily through the 1970s, and then experienced nearly explosive growth in the late 1970s and early 1980s, reaching an all time high of 250 B.S. graduates in 1983. This growth was driven in large part by the U.S. response to the oil crises in 1973 and 1979 and the subsequent investment in the synthetic fuels (synfuels) program by the Carter administration.

J. Larry Duda was named Department Head in 1983 and helped usher in the modern era of chemical engineering at Penn State. In addition to strengthening the Department's connections with Dow and other industrial partners, Duda hired many of the Department’s leading faculty including: Kristen Fichthorn, Wayne Curtis, Alfred Carlson, Themis Matsoukas, Ali Borhan, Lance Collins, John (Jack) McWhirter, Arthur Humphrey, John Frangos, David Edwards, Jonathan Phillips, Costas Maranas, Darrell Velegol, and Janna Maranas. Arthur Humphrey was hired as Director of the Penn State Biotechnology Institute in 1992, and the Bioprocessing Pilot Plant was constructed in the basement of Fenske. This firmly established the Department as a leader in the fields of bioprocessing and biotechnology, building on advances that followed the 1982 approval of recombinant human insulin, the first protein made using recombinant DNA technology (developed by Genentech and commercialized by Eli Lilly).

The Department also established the Center for the Study of Polymer-Solvent Systems in 1990, co-directed by Larry Duda and Ron Danner. Duda was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1998 for his "research on molecular transport in polymers and on tribology, and for leadership in engineering education." His contributions to the Department, the profession, and to Penn State were honored with the establishment of The Dow Chemical Company and Larry Duda Excellence in Chemical Engineering Fund in 2006 through a $2 million gift from Dow.

Henry C. (Hank) Foley became Department Head in 2000, having been recruited to Penn State from the University of Delaware. Foley moved the Department strongly into the area of nanoscience and nanotechnology, both through his own research on nanoporous carbons and through the hiring of Seong Kim and Jong-in Hahm (in addition to Antonios Armaou). Foley also continued the Department's tradition of having someone with significant industrial experience teach the senior design course, with Robert Nedwick taking over that role after Jack McWhirter’s retirement from the faculty. Foley was appointed as Associate Vice President for Research and Director of Strategic Planning at Penn State in 2004, and subsequently served as Dean of the College of Information Sciences and Technology before becoming Vice President of Research and Dean of the Graduate School in 2009.

Chemical Engineering Today

Andrew L. Zydney, current Department Head of Chemical Engineering.

Andrew L. Zydney was appointed Interim Department Head upon Foley's move to Old Main, taking over the position on a permanent basis in 2005. Zydney helped lead a major revitalization of the Department, hiring a diverse range of junior and senior faculty: Michael Janik (2006), Scott Milner (2008), Robert Rioux (2008) Enrique Gomez (2009), Howard Salis (2009), Kyle Bishop (2010), Angela Lueking (2011), Esther Gomez (2011), Manish Kumar (2011), and Thomas Wood (2011). The undergraduate program in Chemical Engineering is currently ranked 14th in the country (based on the 2013 U.S. News and World Report), which is up from 16th in 2012 and 21st in 2011. The Higher Education Evaluation and Accreditation Council of Taiwan recently ranked Chemical Engineering at Penn State as 1st in the U.S. and 7th internationally based on their evaluation of research productivity, excellence, and impact.

After a period of declining undergraduate enrollment in the early 2000s, interest in chemical engineering is again in a period of rapid growth, driven in part by the increasing emphasis on alternative energy in combination with the development of major natural gas finds in Pennsylvania (the Marcellus shale) and throughout the U.S. For example, the number of students selecting Chemical Engineering as their major of preference as part of the University's First Year Testing, Consulting, and Advising Program (FTCAP) increased from 87 in the summer of 2005 to 180 in summer of 2012. The number of Schreyer Honors Scholars enrolled in the Chemical Engineering program has more than doubled during this time period, from 30 in 2005 to 63 in 2012 (during which time the total number of Schreyer Honors Scholars at Penn State remained stable). The graduate program has also increased in size from 57 students in 2007 to 102 students in 2012, with a 2.5-fold increase in the number of applications.

The Department implemented a major revision of the undergraduate curriculum in 2005 that:

  • increased the number of electives that can be used to pursue different undergraduate options, minors, and specialized programs;
  • incorporated a core focus on the biological aspects of chemical engineering through a required course in Cell and Molecular Biology and a newly developed course in Introduction to Biomolecular Engineering;
  • strengthened the chemical engineering core through an additional credit of phase equilibrium thermodynamics and heat transfer as well as a new core course on Mathematical Methods in Chemical Engineering.

Image showing the evolution of the curriculum in chemical engineering at Penn State.

Image showing the overlap of Biomolecular Engineering, Alternative Energy, and Nanoscale Materials.

The research activities in the Department continue to evolve, with a strong emphasis on molecular level phenomena and the use of modern computational methods to study a wide range of chemical, physical, and biological processes. The Department has unique strengths in alternative energy, nano-scale materials, and biomolecular engineering, with many of the faculty involved in interdisciplinary research projects working with colleagues across campus and throughout the world. Specific examples include the development of biofuels, studying the nano-structure of plant cell walls, understanding the role of crystallinity in polymeric solar cells, the development of flexible electronics, ion transport in fuel cells, and metabolic pathway engineering (among many others). The Department continues to maintain its core strengths in catalysis, thermodynamics, polymers, and transport phenomena, with applications of these fundamentals in a wide range of exciting areas. The Department is also poised to become a leader in the burgeoning field of natural gas.

The future of Chemical Engineering at Penn State is incredibly bright. The Department has a young and vibrant faculty, an outstanding group of students, a highly committed staff, and a large and engaged alumni base. The Department has also begun working with the University to build a new home for Chemical Engineering that will provide the facilities needed for continued success in the next 50 years!


  • Carnahan, F.L., "History of Chemical Engineering at Penn State," September 6, 1967.
  • Tarbell, J., "Penn State - ChE Department," Chemical Engineering Education, Winter 1978.
  • Various Graduate Study Brochures from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

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