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What's in a name?: The man behind Gross Chem

Ever wonder how the Gross Chemistry building got its rather unfortunate sounding name?  The building was named in honor of Paul Gross, a long time Duke University administrator and an internationally respected chemistry researcher.

When Gross first came to Duke in 1919, he began his career as an assistant professor of chemistry. He later served as chair of the University Research Council from 1934 to 1949, the era during which the University was transforming from a regional college to a major research university. Gross was also dean of the graduate school from 1947 to 1952, dean of the University from 1952 to 1958 and vice president for education from 1949 to 1960. A major supporter of scientific research and its impact on education, Gross taught seminars for science educators in North Carolina throughout his career.

Gross’s long career at Duke was not without problems. During his time as Vice President for Education from 1959 to1960, Gross became involved in the Gross-Edens Affair, a university scandal now largely unknown to current students and faculty.

Gross and Hollis Edens, University President at the time, clashed over their views on whether Duke was taking advantage of post-war growth in higher education. Gross believed the University had to develop new research facilities to keep up with peer institutions while Edens failed to see the importance of such initiatives.

According to a Duke Today:

"A day before the March 23 trustee meeting, he granted an interview with the Durham Morning Herald.  While not naming Edens, Gross said some leaders at Duke wanted to maintain the status quo instead of growing Duke.  Later, he claimed he did the interview to defend himself against 'libelous and defamatory attacks against my reputation and character,' which he attributed to an 'organized campaign of calumny.'"

The conflict soon became so irreconcilable that Edens resigned from his presidency and Gross was removed from his position shortly after the Herald interview.  The position of provost and the Academic Council was created soon after the scandal in 1962 to prevent the same kind of administrative contention and to strengthen faculty governance.

Gross Chemistry Building in 1987

Gross Chemistry Building in 2011

In addition to his career as an administrator, Gross completed impressive scientific research.  He served as an advisor to top U.S. Army researchers as part of the Army Scientific Advisory Panel and led Duke’s wartime chemical research for the Army and Navy.

Gross earned the President’s Medal of Merit in 1942 for his involvement in the Frangible Bullet Project, which developed a plastic explosive that mimicked a real bullet and was used for military training purposes. The project was the largest military research project ever undertaken at Duke. In 1950, President Harry S. Truman appointed Gross to the National Science Foundation board.

After Gross retired from his teaching career in 1965, the Duke Board of Trustees named the Gross Chemical Laboratory on West Campus after him—which opened its doors in 1968.

Gross passed away in 1986 at the age of 91. James Bonk, Duke professor of chemistry, worked at the University during Gross’s term as vice president for education and helped design Gross Chem's general chemistry labs and main lecture hall. Bonk said the building of Gross Chem generated excitement and enthusiasm among faculty and administrators.

The chemistry department had an unusually high deal of input in the design of the labs and the building, Bonk said. He also noted that the Old Chem building on the Main West Quadrangle was designed primarily to architecturally fit the campus and was not well equipped for chemistry labs.

By the time Bonk arrived at Duke in 1959, the chemistry department had outgrown it.

The Chronicle reported in 2007 that the Nicholas School of Environment and Earth Science was eyeing the building as a new home, pending the approval of the Board, as the chemistry department made its move to French Family Science Center.

Bonk also said that Gross was well-respected by colleagues and students for both his research and administrative work.

“He was a terrific scientist,” Bonk said.  “He was really a wonderful mentor for other people, including the later provost of the University.”


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