Charles Walter Porter

March 30, 2020

1917, chemistry faculty in front of Gilman Hall

Chemistry faculty in front of newly built Gilman Hall 1917. C. Walter Porter is sixth from right in front row.

By James Cason, William F. Giauque, and Joel H. Hildebrand

Walter Porter first became a member of the chemistry faculty at Berkeley in 1917, and he served the University in a variety of capacities during the ensuing thirty years until his retirement in 1946. His willingness and ability to effectively discharge administrative duties was early recognized by Gilbert Lewis, who invited Walter to become assistant dean of the College of Chemistry in 1925. He continued as assistant dean until 1941, when he assumed the post of director of the chemical laboratories, a position which he held during the war years and until his retirement. During this period of administrative service in the College of Chemistry, he also served as a member or chairman of numerous Senate and administrative committees.

Charles Walter Porter was born May 16, 1880 in Morgan, Utah. He received schooling in that state to the level of B.S., awarded in 1905 by the Utah Agricultural College (now Utah State University). He served his Alma Mater, first as instructor, then as professor, until 1917, during which period he pursued graduate work at Harvard (A. M., 1909) and at Berkeley (Ph.D., 1915). Recognition of Walter's promise during his graduate work resulted in appointment to the Berkeley faculty in chemistry in 1917. He rose rapidly through the ranks to become professor in 1926.

Interest in research, which remained with Walter throughout his career, was evidenced as early as 1911, when his first paper was published, in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. His range of interests was rather broad, included the fields of molecular rearrangements, dipole moments of organic compounds, stereochemistry of compounds containing deuterium, and induction of organic reactions by application of ultrasonic waves. His greatest impact on research in organic chemistry no doubt resulted from his work in the very important field of molecular rearrangements. His monograph, “Molecular Rearrangements,” appeared in 1928, at which time virtually nothing was known of the mechanisms of such reactions. Indeed, subsequent rapid developments in this field were no doubt stimulated to a significant extent by Porter's book. Even today, molecular rearrangements continue to fascinate the most competent organic chemists; they remain challenging and significant. In the other areas of research cited above, Walter Porter was always a very early investigator in a relatively new field. One of these, dipole moments, was highly developed by one of Porter's students, W. D. Kumler, whose fruitful career was in the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of California, San Francisco.

Although Walter Porter retained an interest in research throughout his career, he is probably most widely remembered for his beautifully organized, lucidly delivered lectures to classes in elementary organic chemistry. This talent was further reflected in the several textbooks which he authored, most of which went through several editions. His first text, The Carbon Compounds (1924), was naturally directed to elementary organic chemistry; and the second one, The Methods of Organic Chemistry (1927), with T.D. Stewart and G.E.K. Branch, was an elementary organic laboratory text. Later, he teamed with Dr. Leona Young, another former student, to write general chemistry texts for both lecture and laboratory. He wrote additional organic chemistry texts in collaboration with his colleague, T.D. Stewart. The last of these, which appeared in 1948, after Walter's retirement from active teaching, demonstrated his continuing interest in the writing of chemistry textbooks.

Those of us who had the privilege of knowing Walter Porter, whether as teacher, colleague, or friend, have been heartened not only by his productive career of service, but also by his many pleasant years after retirement, spent in Southern California with his wife, his daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.