at the molecular and atomic level, it is relevant
across chemistry and other disciplines. Lewis
once said, “physical chemistry is everything
that is interesting”and Eyring probably agreed
with this statement, says Jack Simons, one of
Eyring’s colleagues at the University of Utah. For
this reason, Simons has stated, Eyring was not
shy about using his skills to attack such diverse
problems as molecular electronic surfaces, rates
of chemical reactions, flames and explosions,
and biological processes associated with aging.
He liked to figure out how molecules worked,
and he would bring any and all tools at his dis-
posal to the task.
All of Eyring’s sons were encouraged to
study chemistry and physics in their youth. His
oldest son, Edward, is still a working chemist
at the University of Utah; but his second son,
Henry, switched from
physics to business. They
were both following the
advice of their father
that they pursue some-
thing for which they had
What can we learn
from Henry Eyring’s life?
Perhaps it is that “simple”
people can indeed
Eyring was born in Colonia, Juarez, Mexico, where his grandparents migrated in the late 1880s during the Mormon migration from Utah. Political unrest in 1910 necessitated the family’s move to El Paso, TX. In the move, the family lost nearly everything, but Henry’s father was able to purchase a small farm in Arizona that
everyone worked hard to make a success.
He graduated from high school in 1919. By earning a state fellowship and also work-
ing, Eyring graduated in 1923 from the University of Arizona with a B.S. in mining engi-
neering. The following year, he earned an M.S. in metallurgical engineering. A summer
job with exposure to burning sulfur (smelly sulfur dioxide) prompted Eyring to change
professions and become a chemistry instructor at the University of Arizona. There, he
was encouraged by several faculty members to study for his doctorate.
Two years later, in 1927, he earned a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. He did a post doc at the
University of Wisconsin and was a National Research Foundation fellow at the Kaiser
Wilhelm Institute in Berlin before going to Princeton University (1931-46). In 1946 he
became a professor of chemistry at the University of Utah and founded its Graduate
School. His many honors include the ACS Priestley Medal, National Medal of Science,
Sweden’s Berzelius Medal, election to the National Academy of Sciences, and the presi-
dency of the American Chemical Society (1963).
change the world. We must take nothing for granted, work hard,
and be humble. We should follow our passions. And finally, each
person must be dedicated to truth, wherever one finds it, and to
live in such a way as to make one’s self comfortable in the com-
pany of good people.
More about Eyring’s work and life is detailed in the June 9,
2008 issue of
Chemical & Engineering News.
Also, a symposium
in his honor will be presented at the upcoming spring 2009
ACS meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.
One thing Henry Eyring prided himself on was his physical fitness. He was remembered for walk- ing to and from his office, doing standing jumps from the floor to the top of his desk, and chal-
lenging his graduate students to an annual foot race.
The tradition of the Eyring foot race began in
1958, when he challenged his secretary at the
Dean’s office at the University of Utah to a foot race.
Much to her surprise he won easily. Dean Eyring
then challenged two administrative colleagues,
G. Homer Durham and Sterling M. McMurrin, to another foot race. Much to the amuse-
ment of the crowd who had gathered to watch the race, both challengers fell while
running the race, leaving Henry Eyring with an undefeated record.
Thereafter, Eyring kept the foot race tradition alive by challenging his graduate
students to a 50-yard dash each year. Eyring did not win any of these races, but he did
award cash prizes to the first four winners in each year’s competition. Finally, in 1978,
Eyring retired from his foot racing career at age 78.
While the Eyring foot race is no longer run at the University of Utah, the event is
still fondly remembered within the chemistry community. According to Ted Eyring,
Henry’s eldest son who is now a professor at the University of Utah, “The key ingre-
dients for these shenanigans were Henry Eyring’s fleetness of foot, his prestige in the
international chemistry community, and his willingness to be humiliated annually in
public (including on national television one year) by his youthful graduate students.”
The Eyring Foot Race
Kauzmann, Walter, Biographical Memoirs Home Page,
“Henry Eyring, February 20, 1901 – December 26,
1981”, National Academy of Sciences, Washington,
Simons, Jack, “Remembering Henry Eyring,”
& Engineering News
, June 9, 2008, vol 26, no 23, pp.
Eyring, Henry, “Men, Mines and Molecules,”
28 (1977), p. 2.
JANAN M. HAYES AND
PATRICIA L. PEREZ are pro-
fessors emeriti of chemistry at
California Community College
with over 35 years in teaching and
co-directors of Project Inclusion,
a project that supports informa-
tion on non-traditional people,
places, and times in the traditional
chemistry curriculum. Jan is also a
member of the American Chemical
Society Board of Directors.
in this issue
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