Knoxville - Oak Ridge Local Section
A Short History of the Knoxville - Oak Ridge Section of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers
by Bob Hightower

The Knoxville-Oak Ridge Section of the AIChE can trace its origin at least as far back as the time of the Manhattan Project and perhaps earlier. John Shacter and John Prados remember that the predecessor organization, already active in 1944, was known as the Smoky Mountain Chemical Engineers Club which provided the forum for chemical engineers from The University of Tennessee, Rohm and Haas, and other local firms. Its membership was boosted by the infusion of the Oak Ridge workers. The Knoxville-Oak Ridge Section, as it is known today, was chartered by the National AIChE organization in 1948; and the first president was R. Kims Collins, Chief Engineer of the Rohm and Haas plant in Knoxville. The other officers were: R. N. Lyon-Vice President; A. C. Jealous-Secretary; and J. A. Connors-Treasurer.

Over the years, most of the section's meetings have consisted of a short networking social period, followed by a luncheon or dinner, and featuring a guest speaker on a topic of current interest. The meeting schedule for a typical year would include a meeting with the student AIChE chapter, one plant trip, and one purely social event. Notable plant trips over the years have included the Bowaters Paper Mill in Calhoun; the Staley Ethanol Plant in Loudon; the Rohm and Haas plant in Knoxville; the ASARCO zinc mines in Mascot; the Tennessee Eastman Plant in Kingsport (a joint meeting with the East Tennessee Section); a tour of the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Oak Ridge (also a joint meeting with the East Tennessee Section); the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant; and the new Manufacturing Sciences operations in Oak Ridge. Other than plant trips, meetings are held in Oak Ridge or Knoxville. The purely social events included dinner dances, dinners with entertaining speakers, wine tasting events, section picnics, and, in the earlier days, gatherings in the Rathskeller following section meetings in Oak Ridge.

Ed von Halle remembers that meetings in the early years were held in the former Oak Terrace Restaurant, now the Miller Hardware Building in the Oak Ridge Grove Center shopping center. Ed recalls an AIChE program that included a specially-brought television set in order to capture that Sugar Ray Robinson was the boxing match winner and still champion. Hank Cochran remembers two well-attended section meetings in the late 70's when Eric Wischusen's Knox Valve and Fitting Co. sponsored an open bar during the social hour, and a well-attended meeting with a speaker from the Jack Daniel Distillery. Hank also vividly remembers our tour of the zinc mine far (very far) underground.

Things were quite different back then, the atmosphere was somewhat more relaxed. George Jasny related the following story:

On June 16, 1958, at the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant, concentrated uranyl nitrate solution accidentally passed through a leaky valve into a nuclearly "safe" storage tank, which was being leak-tested. When operators drained the content into a 55-gallon drum its content reached a critical mass in the drum, and a chain reaction ensued, which set off the radiation monitors. Eight men who were in the immediate area received significant doses of radiation as a result. Five of them in excess of 200 R, two in excess of 300 R. Fortunately, all of them survived and returned to work after their recovery, though not in uranium work. It was subsequently reported in a letter to our local newspaper (Fry Shirley, Letter to the Editor, The Oak Ridger, April 1995), that while four of these men have died at ages ranging from 54 to 80, the other four aged 61 to 76 are still alive. On June 17, "safe" new tanks were constructed in a shielded area, and on June 18, the contents of the 55-gallon drum were transferred to the new safe tanks and decontamination of the area was begun. By June 23, a week after the accident, all uranium recovery facilities were returned to normal operation. The final report detailing the accident, including appendices, was approximately one half-inch thick.
Thirty years later, concern about radiation damage to the containment vessel of the High Flux Isotope Reactor at ORNL led to investigations by over twenty separate committees. (G. Jasny chaired one of them, and he is sure the collected reports would total several feet of reading material.)

In the 1960's and early 1970's the section had 60-70 members rather consistently each year. About 50% of these members were members of the national AIChE and the others were local chemical engineers not officially affiliated with the national organization. In 1972 Chuck Cunningham was membership chairman and undertook a remarkable recruiting effort that raised the membership of the section that year to 159, winning recognition from AIChE as accomplishing the largest percentage increase in a section's membership in the country! In the late 1970's the national organization instituted the requirement that section members join the national organization to be able to continue their local participation; and the national AIChE also began collecting section dues as a service. This latter action resulted in a significant increase in the section membership to approximately 230 where it remains relatively constant. The Knoxville-Oak Ridge section membership for 1997 was 232, drawn from a national AIChE membership of 287 in the area served by the section.

Continuing education has been a strong focus of the section throughout its history. During the late 1950's and early 60's, evening workshops and all-day Saturday symposia were held on topics that included Statistical Design of Experiments and Application of Analog Computers to Chemical Engineering Problems. During the later 60's and 70's the local section started its program year each September following a three-month summer hiatus with a three-day symposium on a topic of interest to the local chemical engineering community. Some of the topics for these symposia were: Chemical Analytical Methods, Operational Analysis and Planning, Environmental Protection, Fossil Fuel Production and Utilization, and Engineering Economic Analysis. The section will reinstitute its symposium series this May by holding an Incineration symposium.

Shown below: Ladies' Night at McGee-Tyson Officers Club in February 1975.
Left to right: Bob Milford, Unidentified, Tom Pickel (President Elect), John Holmes, Howard McLain (President), Doug Klima, Hank Cochran, John Sheppard, Bob Hightower (Past President).
Photo by Bob Hightower

In 1979 AIChE Headquarters advised local sections to incorporate in their individual states as a protection for section officers in the event of a liability suit against the section. The Executive Committee (at that time consisting of Hank Cochran, Chair; Kent Williams, Chair-Elect; Ray Barker, Secretary; and Jack Watson, Treasurer) decided to go forward with incorporation as a not-for-profit organization in Tennessee. We were fortunate to enlist John Valliant (husband of Hank's secretary, Pam) as our volunteer attorney to assist us with the legal aspects. One of the significant results of that effort was the establishment of formal By-Laws of the section, which serve the section to this day. The process of incorporation was completed in 1980 under Kent Williams' leadership.

The AIChE established the membership grade of Fellow to recognize outstanding contributions of members to the profession of chemical engineering and to the Institute. Members of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge section who have been nominated by the local section and elected by the national Council of AIChE as Fellows include: Donald C. Bogue (deceased), Edward S. Clark, Robert K. Collins, Jr., Oran L. Culberson, Floyd L. Culler, Jr., Paul A. Haas, J. Robert Hightower, John M. Holmes, Hsien-Wen Hsu, George R. Jasny, Homer F. Johnson (deceased), John H. Pashley, Joseph J. Perona, W. Wilson Pitt, Jr., John W. Prados, Billy R. Rodgers, Charles D. Scott, John Shacter, Jack S. Watson, and Raymond G. Wymer.

Three members of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Section, Floyd L. Culler, Jr., George R. Jasny, and Charles D. Scott, have been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and several section members have received prestigious Institute awards over the years. Winners of the Robert E. Wilson award for Nuclear Chemical Engineering are: Floyd L. Culler, J. R. Merriman, Raymond G. Wymer, Finis S. Patton, and George R. Jasny. Lloyd G. Alexander (1952) and Donald C. Bogue (1967) received the Allen P. Colburn Award for Excellence in Publications by a Young Member of the Institute. Peter T. Cummings of The University of Tennessee will be the recipient of the Alpha Chi Sigma Award in Chemical Engineering Research at the 1998 National Meeting in Miami this year.

John Prados was the first local section member to hold office with the National AIChE. He was elected as Director for a three-year term, 1975-1977, elected as Treasurer for 1996-1998, and reelected Treasurer for 1999-2001. Other Knoxville-Oak Ridge section members who have held the position of Director are: Charles D. Scott (1988-1990), Billy R. Rodgers (1994-1996), and Irvin W. Osborne-Lee (1994-1996).

Many local section members have chaired national AIChE divisions and committees. The Nuclear Engineering Division chairs have been: F. L. Culler, E. D. North, C. P. McGinnis, K. E. Plummer, J. R. Hightower, and J. J. Perona. Jack Watson has served as the Separations Division chair. Research Committee chairs from Oak Ridge have been D. G. Thomas, J. R. Hightower, and J. S. Watson. John Shacter served as chair of the Public Relations Committee and the Energy Committee. John Prados has chaired the Public Relations Committee, the ad hoc Chemical Engineer Supply-Demand Committee, the Design Institute for Physical Properties (DIPPr) Data Formation, Technical, and Administrative Committees, the Education and Accreditation Committee, and the Assembly of Fellows.

The most complete record that exists of the Knoxville - Oak Ridge Section is the list of officers for each year here.