July 2015 – In Memoriam

Photo courtesy of Trixie Usselman.

Photo courtesy of Trixie Usselman.

Mel Usselman

5 January 1946 — 23 March 2015

Mel Usselman, a distinguished historian of chemistry and a dear friend to many in our community, died on 23 March 2015 at the age of 69, after a six-week illness. He is survived by his wife Trixie and three children. His just-published life’s work is a magisterial full-scale biography of the extraordinary English polymath William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828). He had completed the final task connected with the publication of the book—approving the cover design—a few days before falling ill. Advance copies of Pure Intelligence: The Life of William Hyde Wollaston (University of Chicago Press) arrived at the Usselman home six weeks after the author had passed away.

Melvyn Charles Usselman was born 5 January 1946 in Ottawa. He graduated with an honors B.Sc. degree in chemistry from the University of Western Ontario in 1968, then completed a chemistry Ph.D. there five years later under the direction of the eminent organic chemist Paul de Mayo. Partly under the influence of de Mayo’s deep interest in the field, Usselman developed a passion for the history of chemistry even before completing his doctoral research. After the degree, he began teaching a course of his own design at Western (he called it “Liberal Science 101”), while studying toward a master’s degree in history of science.

By great good fortune Usselman had the benefit of the mentorship and friendship of the eminent historian of biochemistry Frederic L. Holmes, who from 1972 to 1977 chaired Western’s Department of History of Medicine and Science. Usselman earned his M.A. in 1975, was hired by Western’s Department of Chemistry, and began his career as a historian-chemist. He ascended the ranks, regularly teaching organic chemistry as well as history of science, attaining a full professorship in 2005 and then becoming emeritus in 2013. Until 1981 he held a joint appointment in the Department of History of Medicine and Science.

One of the first subjects Usselman began to explore as a master’s student was Wollaston’s life and work, a worthy quest that he tirelessly pursued for the next forty years. In his own day Wollaston was universally considered to be one of Europe’s greatest natural philosophers, but through a twist of fate that Usselman explains to his readers, no proper biography has ever appeared—until now. Usselman tenaciously sought and meticulously analyzed published and unpublished materials, including letters, laboratory notebooks, and business records, succeeding not only in thoroughly elucidating Wollaston’s amazing life story, but also in illuminating his context within early nineteenth-century British (and global) society, politics, technology, and commerce.

In addition to his exceptional ability as a historian, Usselman was also a highly trained chemist with access to his own laboratory, to colleagues in other chemical specialties, and to talented undergraduate chemistry honors students. He employed all of these as invaluable adjuncts to his more bookish historical work. For example, he and collaborators carried out analyses and replications to provide important insights into Wollaston’s innovative work on platinum, palladium, and rhodium, results that could have been obtained in no other fashion. Often with the help of students (whom he routinely gave coauthor status), in a series of remarkable journal articles and book chapters he replicated in historically sensitive ways crucial experiments by Wollaston, John Dalton, Thomas Thomson, and Justus Liebig.

In each of these cases, Usselman and collaborators were able to show that the actual historical details were far more interesting, and often more consequential, than had always been assumed. For example, we now know that Dalton’s first case of multiple proportions—that which led him to the atomic theory—was experimentally much more complex than Dalton realized, and some of his fortuitously favorable conclusions were based on misinterpretations. The same was true for one of Thomson’s decisive early verifications of Dalton’s theory. And the meticulous experimental replications of Liebig’s revolutionary procedure for the elemental analysis of organic compounds by Usselman et al. provided innumerable insights that could have been reached by no other means. For the latter project and related work, in 2004 Usselman was awarded the Liebig-Wöhler Freundschafts-Preis at the University of Göttingen.

I was privileged to witness some of Mel’s work on the Liebig project at first hand. I stood in awe of his almost magical ability to surmount one obstacle after another, gradually coaxing an historically informed apparatus to work. It wasn’t just his ability to analyze and resolve intractable problems that so deeply impressed; he was simultaneously (and brilliantly) mentoring two student collaborators who learned the procedure and actually carried out the lab-work. Usselman was indeed a teacher as well as a scholar—a teacher for the ages. He had a well-earned reputation at Western, collecting major teaching awards on the national as well as regional and local levels. His introductory course on the normally dreaded subject of organic chemistry was regularly heavily oversubscribed.

Mel’s exceptional appeal as a teacher was based on many factors, but I suspect three were paramount. The first was his habit of extraordinary clarity and careful organization in whatever he did and said. I am sure that Mel had a natural aptitude to speak and write clearly, but there is also no doubt that this result was the outcome of hard work and careful thought. A second factor was his almost preternatural patience. Mel loved people, and he was amazingly generous with his time and attention—to students of course, but the same can be said about his relations with colleagues.

The final and maybe the most important point to mention was Mel’s many other sterling human qualities. A consummate colleague, mentor, and friend, positive and thoughtful in all his dealings, his wise voice was cherished at Western, as well as in the wider circles in which he moved. Mel was one of the most deeply and thoroughly decent people I have ever met. He had a wonderful sense of humor. In talking with him, working with him, learning from him, and laughing with him, one never felt it was ever about him; it was always about others. Mel Usselman not only enjoyed his life enormously, he made everyone around him enjoy theirs more. He will be dearly missed.

Alan Rocke
Case Western Reserve University