Ingenious: Fast thinker

Polymer chemistry pioneer Speed Marvel made his mark with groundbreaking synthetic materials

Professor Carl “Speed” Marvel’s research into polymers led to the development of synthetic rubber and fiber. (Image courtesy of UI Archives)
Polymer chemistry pioneer Speed Marvel made his mark with groundbreaking synthetic materials

There are many stories about how the fabled chemistry professor got his nickname. According to one, which traces back to 1938, he lectured so rapidly—scribbling equations on the blackboard as he went—that students couldn’t keep up. The instant the bell rang, he would stop mid-sentence and exit the classroom.

Regardless of how the moniker came about, Carl “Speed” Marvel, MA ’16 LAS, PhD ’20 LAS, HON ’63, was indeed fast-moving, a larger-than-life character whose work at the University had both immediate and lasting impacts.

After receiving master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from Illinois, Marvel joined the faculty in 1920. He became a pioneer in polymers, molecules that form the basis of such materials as neoprene, nylon and synthetic rubber. Among Marvel’s major achievements was his work on the Synthetic Rubber Research Project during World War II. The project—an alliance among industry and 11 universities, led by Illinois—enabled the U.S. to increase synthetic rubber production to seven times that of Axis-power Germany from 1941-45.

Marvel’s research also led to the development of polybenzimidazole or PBI. A synthetic fiber featuring exceptional resistance to fire, PBI was used in astronaut flight suits and the heat shields of spacecraft nose cones, and is still the leading fabric choice for firefighter clothing.

Marvel left Illinois for the University of Arizona in 1941 and died in 1988 just a year after retirement. His many accolades include the National Medal of Science, presented to him in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan.

Sources: LAS News, Spring 2009; Carl Shipp Marvel: A Biographical Memoir, Nelson J. Leonard, 1994; The Chicago Tribune, January 7, 1988; Distillations, Summer 2016; and the University of Illinois Archives