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Coover, Winifred Forrest

Published onJul 30, 2021
Coover, Winifred Forrest

(1875-January 23, 1962)

Quick Facts

After a devastating fire, Coover spearheaded the recreation of the chemistry department at Iowa State. Under his leadership, the role of the department changed from teaching courses for the rest the college to one featuring independent research as well as teaching.


Winfred F. “Buck” Coover attended Otterbein College, Ohio (AB 1900) and Ohio State University (MA 1903) before joining the faculty in Chemistry at Iowa State in 1904, hired by department head, Alfred E. Bennett. At the time, Coover was one of only 3 professionally-ranked staff handling the great load of chemistry courses required by all curricula at Iowa State.

On March 25, 1913, Coover was the last person out of the Chemistry Building, having seen to standard safety and security measures. But a disastrous fire broke out and the entire building and its contents were destroyed. Then department head Alfred E. Bennett was so disheartened by losing all he had worked on for so long, that he lost the will to go on.

Coover took over as head of the department and spearheaded the planning for a new state-of-the-art building. By May, a new site was chosen north of the trolley tracks from Ames (parallel to what is now Osborn Drive). To start, Coover made an extensive tour of science buildings throughout the Midwest and Eastern United States. He returned with many ideas to compliment his own.

With the help of architects Proudfoot, Bird, and Rawson of Des Moines, plans for a new building quickly materialized. It was to be as large or larger than any Chemistry building on campuses in the United States and even in Europe. Foremost, it was to be fireproof in a way that no fire occurring in single laboratories, offices, dispensing storerooms or storage areas could spread throughout the structure. To that end, Coover was eminently successful. Over the years, several fires occurred that destroyed laboratory benches, hoods and desks, but the damage never went beyond the room in which the fire started.

The legislature appropriated $25,000 for the new building and Coover's plan was to use the money to build the shell with few or any furnishings. It was to have three stories with a basement half below surface. Usable floor space would be 110,000 square feet. The capacity of the building was sufficient to accommodate 50 or more instructors' offices and 2,000-2,500 student lockers. During the 1913-14 academic year, the entire College only had 1,500 students taking Chemistry courses. Thus, Coover predicted the building would take care of all the Chemistry students enrolled annually at Iowa State for at least the next 10-12 years. The building was ready for occupancy by September of the 1914-15 academic year.

Noteworthy details included a large amphitheater-like auditorium seating 396, a ventilation system that moved 180,000 cubic feet of air per minute, separate stores and dispensing rooms on each floor connected by dumb waiters, and softer asphalt floors in labs to reduce bodily strain.

Coover’s office was on the second floor right above the main entrance. More than fifty professors and instructors made their offices in the building with nothing more than a nail on which to hang their wraps. Nonetheless 2,448 students in a variety of departments took classes in the building during the 1914-15 academic year.

An additional $100,000 was needed to equip the building with the bare necessities and during the ensuing next few years more money was made available. Coover’s ideas and his building were successful beyond his fondest dreams.

Under Professor Coover’s leadership, the role of the Chemistry Department changed from that of primarily service teaching for the rest of Iowa State College to one featuring independent research as well as teaching. His vision was to make the department into one of premier class in the United States.

When Bennett brought Coover to Iowa State, he intended Coover to replace Julius Weems in Agricultural Chemistry. Coover had arranged with Prof. Bennett to complete research for the PhD while a staff member at Iowa State College (ISC). For eight years as a staff member at ISC, Coover built up the reputation Weems had established in scientific agriculture. Unfortunately, the labor of acquiring data to complete a dissertation went slowly and was completely lost in the chemistry building fire. Although Coover never received the coveted PhD, he was awarded the Doctor of Science degree in recognition of his accomplishments as an alumnus – though he shunned the title "Doctor", much preferring that of "Professor" which he felt he had really earned.

To make a department already noted for its teaching into one also noted for its research required hiring people with PhDs and demonstrated research as well as teaching ability. Development to this end started in 1913 with the hiring of Louis Agassi Test (PhD 1907, University of Chicago) to teach beginning Chemistry students.

Coover’s focused hiring of outstanding individuals continued over the next decades, though he was always frustrated by low salaries in retaining valuable staff:

  • 1913 - John A. Wilkinson, PhD Cornell University, Analytical and Inorganic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry, History of Science (especially Chemistry).

  • 1913 – Raemer Renshaw, PhD Columbia University, Organic Chemistry (the first “specialist”)

  • 1915 – Frank Emerson “FE/Iron” Brown, PhD University of Chicago, Surface and Catalytic Chemistry

  • 1915 – Anson Hayes, PhD University of Chicago, Physical Chemistry, Metallurgy, Chemical Engineering

  • 1916 – Ruth O’Brien, MS University of Nebraska, Organic Chemistry as applied to foods and nutrition

  • 1919 – Ellis I. Fulmer, PhD University of Toronto, Biophysical Chemistry

  • 1919 – Henry Gilman, PhD Harvard University, Organic and Organometallic Chemistry; also directed the building of the library’s noteworthy chemistry research collection; first at Iowa State to be named to the National Academy of Science, namesake of the current Chemistry Building

  • 1921 – Norman A. Clark, PhD University of Toronto, Chemistry of soils

  • 1921 – Ralph Hixson, PhD Wisconsin, Plant Chemistry

  • 1922 – Nellie Naylor, PhD Columbia, household applications, Enzyme Chemistry

  • 1925 – Rachel Edgar, PhD, Ohio University, Textile Chemistry

  • 1929 – Emerson Bird, PhD, Iowa State, Dairy Chemistry

  • 1929 – Byron Thomas, PhD, University of Wisconsin, Biochemistry

  • 1931 – Iral B. Johns, PhD Iowa State, Analytical and Synthetic Chemistry

  • 1931 – Harley Wilhelm, PhD Iowa State, Physical Chemistry using spectrometric analytical methods; namesake of the Metallurgy/Ames Laboratory Building

  • 1934 – Leland A. Underkofler, PhD Iowa State, Organic Chemistry, Industrial Fermentation Methods

  • 1937 – Frank H. Spedding, PhD Berkeley, Physical Chemistry, director of Manhattan Project at Iowa State; second at Iowa State to be named to National Academy of Science

  • 1939 – Harvey Diehl, PhD University of Michigan, Analytical Chemistry

Coover served as department head until 1944 when he stepped down from administrative duties. He continued as a professor until his death in 1962. He received the I.S.U. Faculty Citation in 1951 for leadership in his field and for being an inspiration to his students. The Iowa State Journal of Science dedicated its April 1945 issue to his work. He served on many committees and belonged to many honorary and professional societies. He also served on the Iowa State Athletic Council.

His imprint on the reputation and character of the early 20th century Chemistry Department at Iowa State College and subsequently Iowa State University has been lasting. At the time he took over the reins in 1913 his vision was well focused. The people he gathered to the Department had broad shoulders on which those who followed have been able to stand firmly. "Buck" Coover, as he was known throughout the Ames community, was a giant who came along at just the right time to benefit both the university and community. He passed away Jan. 23, 1962 and is interred in the Iowa State University Cemetery.

Selected Sources

Excerpted from Harry J. Svec’s Chemistry at Iowa State University: Some Historical Accounts of the Early Years, edited by Katherine Svec, with additional information from ISU website

Winfred F. Coover Papers, RS 13/6/16, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames, Iowa.

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