Letters from our readers.
Remembering Doc Lewis
Thank you for the excellent article on Professor Warren K. Lewis (“The Catalyst,” MIT News, May/June 2006). I had the privilege of taking courses with him and also, as an instructor at the Practice School, interacting with him a little outside class.
Professor Lewis was a true teacher. He would challenge his students, but he was always fair. His challenges could be formidable, but they were always directed at those who should have had the answers. If he was interacting with a student who faced physical or linguistic obstacles, Doctor Lewis would be patient and kind. His objective was for the students to learn, and we did. This was also true of other “names” on the faculty of that era, such as Professor Millard in physical chemistry.
No matter how well endowed you might be, you came away from your MIT experience with useful knowledge.
Hugh W. Schwarz ‘42
Vineyard Haven, MA
I would like to pass along two anecdotes about my relationship with Doc Lewis after graduation. He had a long-standing consulting agreement with the Standard Oil Company. I worked for a subsidiary of Standard, and Doc made a visit every other year. As a recent MIT graduate, I was asked to look after Doc socially while he was in town. One day, before we were going to take Doc out for dinner, a summer employee asked if he could join us: he had applied to MIT Course X for graduate school and wanted to meet the great Doctor Lewis. He did join us, and Doc put him through his usual classroom tortures. At the end of the evening the young man asked Doc what courses he would recommend for a first semester. Doc replied with MIT course numbers that I recognized were sophomore courses. Ten years ago I again met the former summer employee in a business context. He vividly remembered the evening and remarked that he owed Doc Lewis a great debt: because Doc showed him that he could not be a successful chemical engineer, he got an MBA.
The other story concerns a recruiting trip I made to MIT in about 1954 with my boss, E. H. Oliver, who was from a poor family in east Texas and, as a youth, had not traveled outside Texas. He had a chemical-engineering degree from the Rice Institute and had gone to MIT in 1937 for a master’s degree. Doc Lewis had seen that Oliver was lost in Boston and had befriended him. Oliver had often gone to the Lewis home in Newton for meals. On our 1954 recruiting trip, we were invited for dinner with the Lewises. After dinner, Doc insisted on driving us back to Boston. The temperature was below freezing. Doc handed both of us blankets and drove all the way to Boston with the windows open and without the heater.
Joe F. Moore ‘52
Thank you for the great Doc Lewis article. Warren K. Lewis was my Sunday school teacher at the Congregational church in Newton, MA, and became a friend and mentor over several years, making me the luckiest student in the world.
For two long summers in the late 1930s, Doc Lewis picked me up at our home in Newton and drove me to Tech, where I worked as a high-school-level bottle washer and experiment runner for master’s and doctoral candidates. At 5:00 he would take me home again. The chance to work for a few of the brightest students, making sure that their thesis experiments ran exactly as planned, set a standard for discipline I much needed.
While the article emphasizes the toughness of Doc Lewis in dealing with students, I carry with me an appreciation of what a fine man he was and how friendly he could be.
But as a graduate student, I was directly exposed to the toughness he could exhibit when he wanted to make a point. Later, as an employee of Humble Oil and Refining in Baytown, TX, I heard Doc Lewis single-handedly stop a revolt of the engineering staff, who wanted to strike, by comparing an engineer to a medical doctor or lawyer who professionally took entire responsibility for the life or death of the patient or client – and who thus could not engage in union-type tactics, ever. That refinery was where his catalytic cracking units produced aviation gasoline that helped us win World War II.
After graduating from MIT in 1905, Doc did graduate studies in chemistry in Germany. He later told my wife Jeanne and me about learning to ski in Austria. On his first day, he walked down an overhanging snowdrift path after watching a Finnish skier get down to the lodge in three minutes of daring downhill skiing. Doc made it in two hours, step by step.
Richard L. Bolin, SM ‘50
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