What strikes you first in the many surviving pictures of Warren K. Lewis is the hard punch of his stare. Even at a distance of 60 or 70 years, you can feel him in the back of your brain, probing for any idea that is half baked or uninformed. Sometimes you can also see a hint of a smile, a sense of mischief that belies his ability to hang people out to dry.
These pictures have been carefully preserved in MIT’s museum because Lewis can reasonably be said to have fathered contemporary chemical engineering. He coauthored the profession’s seminal U.S. text. And as the first chair of MIT’s chemical-engineering department and a member of the faculty for nearly four decades, he helped shape the generations of engineers who defined modern chemical engineering.
In the late 1930s, Lewis and a colleague made a breakthrough in the manufacture of gasoline that gave the Allies the great advantage of a steady supply of high-octane aviation fuel during World War II. He played a key role in the Manhattan Project. And when the war was over, he chaired the committee that defined how MIT would respond to the challenges that conflict had raised.
But within the MIT community, he was most famous as a teacher, a perfect expression of a “tool” culture of rigor and mental toughness in which any discussion of one’s feelings was irrelevant. According to a collection of anecdotes published by former students upon his retirement, when “Doc” Lewis entered a classroom, he would charge in, slam his books down, peel his jacket off, and roll up his sleeves. His wire-rimmed glasses hunted up and down the tiers of students – mostly young men – squirming in front of him as they willed themselves invisible. “Davis! Name me one natural law that is true without exception!” Davis would say something. “That was the damnest, poorest, and most asinine recitation that I have heard in all the years of my experience as a teacher! Jones!” Jones would pause for two seconds to collect his thoughts. “Next man! Smith!” Smith’s face would go white. Once, Lewis recognized a student’s name in a school dramatic production. He called him over. “I’ve always been proud that Course X leaves little time for outside activities,” he said. “You have proved me wrong so far and I’m glad you have. But don’t push your luck too far!”
Of course, he was immensely loved, the way that drill sergeants are, and for many of the same reasons. The message of his manner was that engineers were an elite band, a tribe of special people called to apply their extraordinary skills in service to the community. They required a certain quality of character, a loyalty to unvarnished fact that rose above politics or profit. And even within this tribe, chemical engineers had a little something extra. They were among the first to see their field as a unified engineering science, not merely a collection of isolated specialties. Lewis was there to make sure the undeserving – blockheads, as he was known to call them – did not sneak by, and he was not shy about exercising that responsibility.
But once you got through, if you did, you moved in a special circle. You knew how things worked and were in a position to change them. Everyone lived in the world that you made.