The American Microchemical Society

An Informal History

David B. Sabine and Herbert K. Alber


Short accounts covering specific activities and events have appeared from time to time but with the approaching 45th anniversary of the foundation of the American Microchemical Society, the authors feel that the time has come for a resume of its formation and activities.

At the 89th meeting of the American Chemical Society in new York City in the spring of 1935, two sessions on chemical microscopy were scheduled. They were largely sponsored by Chamot and Mason of Cornell University (3), Benedetti-Pichler and Spikes of New York University (2), and others who had studied under Friedrich Emich and Fritz Pregl in Graz, Austria. Papers were read by Benedetti-Pichler, Mason, Niederl, Schneider, and others and attendance was so great that the sessions had to be transferred to a larger room and an extra session added. So many people were interested that they agreed that the time had come for the formation of an independent group devoted to chemical microscopy, microanalysis, and general microtechniques. All those interested in such a move were asked to leave their names and addresses with Dr. Frank L. Schneider.

That fall, they all received notices calling for an informal meeting at the Washington Square Branch of New York University. An impressive crowd assembled. There is no authentic list of charter members. In fact the first meetings were quite informal and anyone who joined during the first year rightfully can be called a charter member.

Microchemistry was not a new discipline. Small-scale procedures date back almost as far as recorded history but the eighteenth century marks the beginning of true microanalytical methods. An abbreviated account of the historical development of microchemistry has recently appeared. Emich is recognized as the founder of classical microchemistry, developing the techniques for all sections of the field but giving preference to inorganic microanalysis. The other Graz pioneer, Pregl, concentrated on procedures for organic elementary analysis, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1923.

Microchemistry, as defined by Benedetti-Pichler, "deals with the development, correlation, and systematization of the methods for handling small quantities of materials, and for the observation of their properties. . . . the upper limits of the size is reasonably defined by the statement that the quantity of material taken should be so small as to prevent the use of traditional methods of working. The lower limit is determined by the progress in microtechnique . . ." (10).

H.W. Hermance established a microchemical laboratory at the Bell Laboratories in 1931. This was probably the first industrial laboratory designed exclusively for microanalysis (8). But it wasnít until men like Benedetti-Pichler and Niederl, Power, Cheronis, and Schneider offered courses at New York University, Fordham University, Brooklyn College and other colleges that it really "caught on" in this country.

The group that met in the fall of 1935 formed a society to promote the teaching and practice of microanalysis and related methods. The first name selected was the New York-New Jersey Section of the Microchemical Society, in anticipation of the formation of a nationwide organization. When that failed to materialize, the name Metropolitan Microchemical Society was chose in 1938 and used for years until the geographical distribution of the membership belied the limitations of the name. The American Microchemical Society seemed more appropriate and was adopted in 1963.

A constitution was written providing for a Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Secretary-Treasurer, and Executive Committee of two. As the Society grew, obvious changes had to be made. The Vice-Chairman became the Chairman-Elect, the duties of the Secretary-Treasurer were divided between two people according to their respective functions, and the Executive Committee was enlarged to three, the immediate past Chairman automatically becoming the third member. Other changes were made from time to time as they became necessary and a complete revision of the constitution was adopted in 1966. Another revision is presently in progress.

Three classes of membership were provided for: regular, life, and honorary. To the latter, Drs. L.T. Hallett, W.R. Kirner, and C.W. Mason were elected when the Society was formed. During the 1956-57 season, the following regular members were elevated to honorary membership: H.K. Alber, J.F. Alicino, A.A. Benedetti-Pichler, H.N Blume, A. Elek, R.A. Harte, H.W. Hermance, A.F. Knoll, J.A. Kuck, F.A. Meier, D. Price, J.R. Rachele, G.E. Royer, D.B. Sabine, W. Saschek, F.R. Swift, H.V. Wadlow, T.J. Walsh, and L.K. Yanowski. In 1961, at The Pennsylvania State University Symposium, Drs. Feigl, Kofler, Korbl, and Lieb were elected honorary members. In 1965 G. Ingram and in 1970 A. Steyermark were also so honored. By paying a stated lump, a regular member could become a life member but honorary membership was conferred only by a vote of the Society at a meeting. The total membership is now 160.

Since the objectives of the Society were to emphasize the advantages of microtechniques, several special committees were appointed to meet separately on nights other than the regular meeting night, to explore possible applications. Several members joined the Committee on Standardization of Microchemical Apparatus, which was already functioning within the American Chemical Society and the American Society for Testing and Materials, with representatives of several manufacturers participating. Actual Society Committee, a sort of catch-all. The latter studied the uses of microtechniques from all angles. In other words, it "surveyed" the entire field of analysis, including microscopy. These committees which reported to the regular meetings were enthusiastically attended and were very effective. They became inactive in a few years except for the one on standardization which, headed by Steyermark, spent more than 20 years successfully standardizing microchemical apparatus.

The objectives of the Society were clearly achieved. Courses in microtechniques were initialed all over the country. Full acceptance, in a manner of speaking, was attained when Erle Stanley Gardner, the famous author, always checked with a member before allowing his detective Perry Mason, to use microchemistry to convict the murderer in his books "The Case of . . . " series (7).

For many years, the Secretary prepared and sent to all members a summary of the year, giving a brief outline of the lectures given at each meeting. This was a very popular feature and appealed to members from distant parts of the country and even overseas. They stated that, although they were unable to attend the meetings, this feature alone was worth the payment of dues. This practice was finally dropped under the pressure of wartime conditions.

From the very first, all members indicated that they wanted the Society to be completely independent. By refusing to affiliate with the New York Academy of Sciences, they lost the advantage of a permanent meeting place but the consensus was that the advantage was not worth sacrificing independence. Meeting places were not hard to come by but did require ingenuity and planning. They met at New York University both in Washington Square and at the Heights, Columbia University, City College of New York, Fordham University, Bell laboratories, or any other suitable place that did not call for a fee. Later, arrangements were made with the American Museum of Natural History and meetings were held there for nearly 20 years.

A dinner for the speaker, to which all member were welcome, was held at a nearby hotel before the meeting. These get-to-gethers were valuable for the exchange of ideas in an informal way.

When most members came from New York and Westchester County, the New York City colleges and the Museum were convenient and quite satisfactory. However, over the years, the "center of gravity" shifted. More and more members came from new Jersey and the Philadelphia area and fewer from New York and Westchester County. So a sort of compromise was reached ñ meetings are now held in a hotel in northern New Jersey. This has proven convenient for most members of both groups.

After the first few years, the initial meeting of the year was traditionally a plant rip. This included a tour of their laboratories, a dinner (frequently with the compliments of the company), and a speaker from that company. Hoffmann-La Roche Inc., Squibb Institute for Medical Research, Lederle Laboratories, Geigy Corporation (now Ciba-GeigyCorporation), and Bell Laboratories are a few of those that have been toured ñ many of them more than once.

Gradually the custom grew that the last meeting of the year was "Ladies Night" and a speaker was chosen to talk about something that would interest nonchemists. For many years, this was held at Fordham University. The members and their guests ate at a restaurant nearby, then went over to the Chemistry Building for the meeting. As this was also election night, the incoming and outgoing officers met afterwards in the office of the Head of the Department to discuss plans for the coming year, accompanied by suitable libations. Later, when voting was done by mail, this latter custom faded, but the plant trips and Ladies Night are still features of the yearís program.

In 1944, one of the most popular members, the Rev. Francis W. Power, S.J. of Fordham University, died after a short illness. He was always enthusiastic about the Society, an able microchemist, and a good speaker with a keen sense of humor. It was he who made the famous remark that "Microchemistry is an art as well as a science." He was the fourth Chairman that would have certainly been reelected ñ probably for many more terms ñ but before the balloting started, he pleased with the members not to vote for him and further suggested that no one ever serve more than one term. In deference to his wishes he was not reelected and his plea for one-term chairmen has become an unwritten rule.

A memorial was certainly in order but the Society was too young to have spare funds and too few in membership for any significant contributory effort. Mr. E.M. Marshall, a man in his 70s but an active and deeply interest member of the Society solved the problem. "Mac" was a man of many talents ñ geochemist, mineralogist, geologist, microscopist, and microchemist whose hobby was wood carving. He volunteered to carve Johann Becherís "Creed of a Chymist" (1) on a piece of black walnut that he had. On May 16, 1946, the carving was presented by Leo Yanowski, Chairman of the Society, to the Rev. Robert I. Gannon, S.J., President of the University who accepted it for Fordham University where it was hung above the stairs in the old chemistry building. When the John Mulcahy Hall replaced the old building, the plaque was moved to it with the rest of the Department and now hangs on a third floor wall.

Membership in the Society was tantamount to a course in microtechniques. The majority of members joined primarily to learn, and meetings were always well attended. Speakers were selected to demonstrate basic and/or new techniques. The programs also included members who had developed new approaches and nonmembers whose work was particularly important, including Nobel Prize winners like Melvin Calvin, Harold Urey, Peter Debye, and Wendell M. Stanley.

Two other features were "gadget night" and "author meets the critic." The first was truly a gadget sessions: this is no other word which so well describes it. As many as a half dozen members would talk about something unusual they used or did that was worth reporting but did not warrant publication. The others, as its name implies, were rapid fire exchanges between those present.

During the 194546 season, the Society initiated a series of annual symposia to further the knowledge and uses of microtechniques and to stimulate interest in microanalysis and microscopy. The programs were especially designed both to introduce microchemistry, microanalysis, microtechniques, and microscopy to the neophyte and new tools to the specialist. They, too, were successful from the start. Programs of outstanding speakers drew large audiences of interest chemists, as well as exhibits by different equipment companies showing their new appliances.

Sixteen of these annual symposia were held and they were more and more popular. In 1959, the new York and North Jersey Analytical Groups of the American Chemical Society joined with the American Microchemical Society for Applied Spectroscopy to form the Eastern Analytical Symposium. The advantages of greater exposure and more industrial support were obvious.

So the 1960 Symposium was the last of the independent microchemical symposia of the Society except for a special one on April 18, 1963 to honor Dr. Donald D. Van Slyke on his 80th birthday. Speakers were Dole and Kirk, with panel discussions on the uses of the Van Slyke apparatus, including microanalysis led by Steyermark, medical research lead by Sendroy, and clinical analysis lead by Natelson. The Symposium was well attended and one of the most successful ever held by the Society.

Although the norm was eight meetings a year, extra meetings were called for special purposes ñ for example to take advantage of the temporary presence in this country of the famous microchemists, such as Fritz Feigl, Wolfgang Kirsten, Karl Linderstrom-Lang, Ronald Belcher, Wolfgang Schoniger, and many others.

As with other scientific societies, World War II accelerated activities and growth. The development of microtechniques was essential in nuclear chemistry because of the paucity of sample material. Many members were involved in the Manhattan Project, studying nuclear fission, notably Cefalo at Stagg Field in Chicago and Schwob at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

As the society grew strong both in membership and financially, Cheronis, Ma, and Benedetti-Pichler felt that a journal was needed. This three men, Cheronis in particular, persisted and in 1957, after much debate in Society meetings, launched the Microchemical Journal, "devoted to the application of microtechniques in all branches of science." It was successful from the start and subscriptions came in form all over the world.

The disastrous motor accident that took the life of Cheronis in 1962 rocked the Society to its foundation. Cheronis had just retired to his farm in Illinois where he planned to work on the amino acid content of vegetable proteins. He hoped to hybridize corn ñ the mainstay of so many diets in the poorer countries of the world ñ to make the protein more complete biologically. Specifically, he sought to raise the lysine content to a life-supporting level. He was a very able and competent scientist and might have achieved his goal had he lived.

Cheronis was very popular. His enthusiasm was contagious and his drive and strong personality was a decisive factor in the life of Society. Donations in his memory poured in from all over and the Society established the Cheronis Scholarship which was awarded to an especially promising student. But his tragic death nearly ended the Journal. However, Academic Press assumed publication with Al Steyermark as Editor-in-Chief, and the Microchemical Journal continued without missing a single issue.

At this same time, at Steyermarkís recommendation, the Society established an education fund. For the first few years, the funds were allowed to accumulate so that now a perpetual fund has been written into the by-laws. A committee makes these awards to students whose work indicates promising futures. The first award was presented in 1967. In recent years, five awards of $500 each have been made annually.

Under the sponsorship of the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), international microchemical symposia were held at Graz in 1950 and at Vienna in 1955. A number of Society members attended by the Society as an entity did not participate. Donations by American microchemists were used for a bust of Emich and for the establishment of the Emich and Pregl Awards.

As a continuation of this international project, a symposium, under the sponsorship of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, was organized by the American Microchemical Society and was conducted at the Pennsylvania State University in August 1961, with Al Steyermark as General Chairman, H.J. Francis, Jr., as Program Chairman, and J.Y. Steel in charge of arrangements. Approximately 570 persons, representing 19 countries, attended and nearly 100 papers were read. At this meeting, the Austrian Society of Analytical and Microchemistry presented Cheronis with the Emich Award and Steyermark with the Pregl Award (12). These Symposia were so successful that the were repeated in 1965, 1968, and 1973, under the same leadership and at the same place. The ones in 1961 and 1965 were supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health. The 1968 affair was a workshop meeting. All four were of six days duration and were all well attended.

In 1974, the American Microchemical society, the Association of Analytical Chemists, Inc., the Division of Analytical Chemistry of the American Chemical Society, and the Society of Applied Spectroscopy formed the Federation of Analytical Chemistry and Spectroscopy Societies (FACCS) along the lines of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

After the fourth meeting of the FACCS it was obvious that microchemistry was not getting the attention and publicity for which the Society had originally been formed. So they voted to withdraw from the FACSS after the 1978 meeting but to continue participation in the Eastern Analytical Symposium. This latter group had given tangible results beneficial to the objectives of the Society.

In January 1964, Benedetti-Pichler retired after teaching in new York colleges for more than 30 years. He eagerly anticipated a series of "agrochemical" experiments he had planned on his farm in South Carolina, but he died suddenly from a heart attack in December of that year.

Benedetti-Pichler was widely known, liked, and admired all over the world and contributions in his memory started flowing in immediately. A motion by Abler in meeting called for a committee to take charge of the donations and plan a fitting and permanent memorial. A revolving committee for it was written into the by-laws.

The first committee, headed by Sabine with Yanowski, Cefola, and Hoffman designed a bronze plaque featuring a profile n bas-relief of Benedetti-Pichler. The inscription reads: "The A.A. Benedetti-Pichler Award, presented to . . . in recognition of his outstanding contributions to microchemistry" with the proper date. After the initial cost of the mold, sufficient funds remained for a permanent annual award, unless in any particular year, the committee felt that there was no suitable candidates. The time and place of the presentation was also left to the discretion of the committee. The recipient would be required to deliver a paper exemplifying the principles of Benedetti-Pichlerís teaching practices. Although the presence of the recipient was desirable, the award could be accepted by proxy. It is the only comprehensive American Award in microchemistry and has become on of the most coveted.

The suggestion made by Power in the very early days, that Chairmen served only one term has had a double effect that could not have been foreseen when proposed: The governing of the Society has never been controlled by a clique; and bringing a great diversity of experience, personality, capability, and administrative ability to the Chair has been an absolute benefit, greatly strengthening the Society, accelerating its growth, and crating an influence in the discipline inversely proportional to its size. It has also resulted in a long list of members who have served in that capacity.

What does the future hold? According to a survey made by the American Chemical Society in 1978 (4) the largest number of jobs available are for analytical chemists. Every researcher needs to know what he is working with and what he has made. Microanalysis will become more important in future years ñ especially in biological chemistry as samples for analysis become smaller and smaller. As Hans T. Clarke has said, "The elaboration by Pregl of methods of microanalysis and the manipulation of organic compounds on a milligram scale was one of the most influential factors in the development of biochemistry" (6).

Microchemical analysis as a discipline may seem to disappear from the literature but it will do so in name only. It has been incorporated into all processes of instrumentation and analytical procedures. Uniformity of sample and handling of trace materials are still microchemistry per se.

This paper is not nor is intended to be a history of microchemistry. That has been well covered in "A History of Analytical Chemistry" (9). It is the story of the American Microchemical Society and its influence on the development of microanalysis in the United States.


  1. Becher, J.J., "Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterramea," 1669.
  2. Benedetti-Pichler, A.A., and Spikes, W.F., "Introduction to the Microtechniques of Inorganic Qualitative Analysis." Microchemical Service, Douglaston, N.Y., 1935.
  3. Chamot, E.M., and Mason, C.W., "Handbook of Chemical Microscopy," 2 Vols. Wiley, New York, 1931.
  4. Chem. Eng. News, June 19, 1978.
  5. Cheronis, N.D., Microchem. J., 4, 423-444 (1960); Belcher, R., Perspectives in inorganic micro and trace analysis, Pure Appl. Chem. 50, 81-85 (1978).
  6. Clarke, H.T., Impressions of an organic chemist in biochemistry. Annu. Rev. Biochem. 27 (1958); (reprinted in "The Excitement and Fascination of Science." Annual Reviews, Palo Alto, California, 1965).
  7. Fischer, H.O.L., Fifty years a ësythetikerí in the service of biochemistry. Annu. Rev. Biochem. 29, 131; (reprinted in "The Excitement and Fascination of Science." Annual Reviews, Palo Alto, California, 1965). Also Hughes, D.B., "Erle Stanley Gardner." William Morrow, New York, 1978.
  8. Hermance, H.W., personal communication.
  9. Laitinen, H.A., and Ewing, G.W., "A History of Analytical Chemistry," pp. 9-10, 24-37, Maple Press, York, Pennsylvania, 1977.
  10. Sabine, D.B., "Benedetti-Pichler, the father of American microchemistry." Chemistry, 42, 12-15 (1969).
  11. Steyermark, A., "Quantitative Organic Microanalysis," 2nd ed. Academic Press, New York, 1961.
  12. Yanowski, L.K., History of the American Microchemical Society. Microchem. J. 7, 1-4 (1963).

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