This week, we remember the amazing, captivating experiments of Professor Hubert Alyea ’24 *28, also known as “Dr. Boom.” Alyea had a knack for making chemistry a subject that students wanted to learn about, not simply one they were forced to take as a requirement. Despite having classes at the dreaded 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. slots, Alyea’s courses regularly filled with science and non-science students alike.
Alyea started each concept with a story. For example, he loved to tell students that “because Madame Lavoisier was a social climber, modern chemistry was born.” Accompanying his stories were personal touches that made students even more engaged. For 33 years, Alyea held weekly precepts at his home where students enjoyed cider, doughnuts, and free-flowing conversation about chemistry, philosophy, and the meaning of life. But perhaps what was most dazzling about Alyea were his demonstrations. Students remember him flying around the front of the classroom, conducting several experiments at once in order to show students all the applications of the concepts they were studying. During his famous last lecture of each semester, Dr. Boom managed to complete 50 experiments in 50 minutes.
In addition to being a favorite of undergrads, Alyea caught the eye of Walt Disney. After seeing one of Alyea’s public demonstrations, Disney decided to make a film about a chemistry professor who invents a new, miracle substance. Alyea was brought to Hollywood to teach Fred MacMurray, star of The Absent-Minded Professor, the tricks of his trade.
Alyea’s memory lives on at Alumni Day. On Feb. 22 at 10:30 a.m. in the Frick Chemistry Laboratory’s Taylor Auditorium, Kathryn M. Wagner, a lecture demonstrator in the chemistry department, will recreate some of Dr. Boom’s famous experiments. It’s sure to be an explosively fun event!
VIDEO: Below, watch Alyea in a video from the University Archives, and see the 2011 “Magic of Chemistry” Alumni Day presentation.