(- June 23, 1922)
During his time, chemistry courses supported most degrees at the college, including farming, dairy, and veterinary practices and various aspects of human uses ranging from nutrition and diets to the preservation of food and household practices.
Alfred Alan Bennett arrived at Iowa State in 1885, filling a Chemistry position that had had a short-term replacement after the departure of Thomas Pope, the man who built Iowa State’s early reputation in Chemistry.
Bennett, with his University of Michigan BS, came from teaching at the University of Chicago. At Iowa State Agricultural College (ISAC) he did additional coursework in physics, biological sciences, mathematics and research in Chemistry to earn his MS in 1888 - the only advanced degree he ever had. Nonetheless, Bennett played a major role in Chemistry at ISAC.
At that time, Chemistry was a subject built on carefully observed phenomena of chemicals and how to take advantage of them in the analysis of materials. Bennett introduced substantive changes in the way Chemistry was taught at Iowa State, building on the movement toward modernization that Pope had initiated. The curriculum and course content changed, and new progressive texts were adopted. Bennett was also aided by the substantial growth of reference material accumulated by Pope for the Chemistry Department and college libraries.
Although the Chemistry courses were somewhat loosely organized, the students were able to get a good foundation applicable to further study and research as original investigators or as practical chemists.
In 1891, Bennett was still lecturing in all the Chemistry courses being offered by the college and was even doing some of the recitation and laboratory work. By then he was also being called upon to serve on college committees and the demands on his time and energies had grown to overwhelming proportions. The situation became even more difficult because additional equipment was needed to meet the needs of his students, requiring his time to seek and order it. Additionally, the lists of texts and references were growing substantially and the Chemistry course offerings were being organized into a regular pattern. Chemistry at the Iowa State Agricultural College was beginning to prosper.
When he had arrived at ISAC in 1885, Bennett had been faced with seeking a new assistant, thus beginning a trend in which Bennett had only one assistant and a new one at that, each of the next several years. A number migrated to the East to further their scientific careers. Schools like Harvard, Yale, M.I.T., Johns Hopkins and Cornell were anxious to take ISAC graduates.
By 1889 the workload for teaching Chemistry grew to the point that Bennett had to petition the Board for an extra assistant, authorized in 1891.
The year 1891 was a turning point for the ISAC Chemistry Department in other ways too. William Beardshear took over as College President from W. I. Chamberlain, and Mrs. Bennett convinced her Michigan niece, Lola Placeway to come to Iowa for her college education starting in 1892. Beardshear was a dynamic man interested in furthering the quality of education at ISAC and Placeway later assumed an important place in the history of the Chemistry Department, becoming Bennett’s “right hand.”
The academic buildings on the campus in 1891 were Main, Morrill Hall, North and South Halls, Chemistry and Physics Hall, Engineering Hall, Veterinary Hospital, Horticulture Hall and the Creamery. Several "boarding" cottages, dwelling houses for staff, and barns also dotted the campus. By then the Ames and College Railroad (The Dinkey) was a growing facility that made access easy to the growing town of Ames about 3 miles east of the ISAC campus. Many staff members had homes in Ames.
During Bennett's time at ISAC, the Chemistry curriculum also branched out into practical areas. For those students who were emphasizing civil and mechanical engineering studies, a lecture course in the junior year dealing with the metallurgy of important metals started in 1890.
Chemistry courses also became applicable to a large variety of farming, dairy, and veterinary practices and various aspects of human uses ranging from nutrition and diets to the preservation of food and household practices. Chemistry at ISAC supported all of the various curricula and served all of them well.
At the turn of the century, Chemistry at ISAC was prospering and additions to the staff were granted. Chemistry courses had become well organized and a system of special courses and prerequisites were firmly in place.
In September 1904, Bennett hired Winfred Forrest "Buck" Coover as an Assistant Professor for Agricultural Chemistry. Coover was to become a significant addition to the teaching staff at Iowa State.
By 1905 the college was growing and the teaching load in Chemistry was great. More students were enrolled in Chemistry classes than any other single subject on campus due to the fact that all curricula required more than a single year of chemistry.
After about 1898, Bennett and his by-then assistant, Lola Placeway, had begun organizing the notes for teaching various Inorganic Chemistry courses. The result was a text entitled General Chemistry and Elementary Qualitative Analysis by Alfred A. Bennett and Lola A. Placeway. It was published in 1910 and was the first published text by active staff members of the Chemistry Department at Iowa State College. In its time, the Bennett-Placeway text was one of the best available for teaching Inorganic Chemistry to neophyte Chemistry students.
In 1880, a second story had been added to the Chemistry building to alleviate crowding, but by 1910, the structure could not accommodate all the uses required. Expansion plans were authorized, but did not proceed before a disastrous fire on March 26, 1913 destroyed the building and its contents. Bennet and Placeway watched the fire with anguish. They were so disheartened by losing all they had worked on for so long and hard that neither of them had much will to go on.
Coover took over as head of the department and spearheaded the planning for a new state-of-the-art building. Despite the quick response to provide temporary locations for chemistry classes, after the 1913 school year ended, Bennett left Iowa State and moved to Orange, California where he became a citrus grower. He died there on June 23, 1922 at age 71.
Excerpted from Harry J. Svec’s Chemistry at Iowa State University: Some Historical Accounts of the Early Years, edited by Katherine Svec.
Alfred Bennett Papers, RS 13/06/15, University Archives, Iowa State University Library.