Hubert Alyea

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Hubert Newcombe Alyea (October 10, 1903 – October 19, 1996)[1] was an American professor of chemistry at Princeton University. His explosive chemistry demonstrations earned him the nickname "Dr. Boom." He was famous around the world for his "zany, eccentric" public lectures on science, which "were as much performance as professorship."[2] Alyea served as inspiration for the title character in the 1961 film The Absent-Minded Professor.

In 1984, Alyea received the Joseph Priestley award.[3]

Career at Princeton[edit]

The New York Times described his Princeton lectures as follows: “Dr. Alyea had a genius for bringing science to life in the classroom. With his 'armchair chemistry', he endowed chemical principles with the drama and verve of a sound-and-light show, which now and then burned his suits beyond repair. His hands flew above test tubes and Bunsen burners. Amid explosions and swishing clouds of carbon dioxide he explained the mysteries of chemistry with contagious enthusiasm”.[4]

Public lectures[edit]

According to Time Magazine, he “lectured with an animated, dynamic style that drew enthusiastic audiences of all ages”. “Grimacing with fiendish delight”, Life Magazine reported at the time, “he sets off explosions, shoots water pistols and sprays his audience with carbon dioxide in the course of 32 harrowing experiments dramatizing complicated theory”.[5] A shortened version of the lecture was featured on a 1955 NBC TV series, “Princeton '55: An Exploration into Education through Television”. It won an Emmy.

Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries, and the Prepared Mind[edit]

Alyea also was well known for a lecture he gave frequently about the nature of scientific discovery.[6]


After his retirement, Alyea continued to deliver lectures at Princeton reunions. His memoir, My Life as a Chemist, was published in 1991.[7]

Honors and awards[edit]

Alyea was presented with honorary degrees by various colleges and universities, including Beaver College. He won the New Jersey Science Teachers Award (1954), the New Jersey Education Citation (1957), the Chemical Manufacturers Association Award (1964), an award from the New Jersey Chapter of the American Institute of Chemists (1966), the Award in Chemical Education from the American Chemical Society (1970), the James Flack Norris Award from the Northeast Section of the American Chemical Society (1970), and the Robert H. Carleton Award from the National Science Teachers Association (1991). Dickinson College presented him with the Priestley Award in 1984.[8][9]

Alyea, who was born in Clifton, New Jersey, died at his home in Hightstown, New Jersey, on October 22, 1996, at the age of 93.[4]


  1. ^ Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014. Social Security Administration.
  2. ^ "@princetonCourseware - Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind - Hubert N. Alyea". 1903-10-10. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
  3. ^ "Princeton Alumni Weekly: Hubert Alyea". 1996-10-19. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
  4. ^ a b SAXON, WOLFGANG (27 October 1996). "Hubert Newcombe Alyea, 93; Made Chemistry a Lively Art". Obituaries. The New York Times. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  5. ^ Thean, Tara. "LIFE With Hubert Alyea: The Science Teacher You Wish You Had". Life Magazine. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  6. ^ "Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind". Princeton Courseware. Princeton University. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  7. ^ Alyea, Hubert N. "My Life as a Chemist: Hubert N. Alyea, Princeton University, As Recorded for The Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry [Hardcover]". Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry 1991. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  8. ^ Center for Oral History. "Hubert N. Alyea". Science History Institute.
  9. ^ Sturchio, Jeffrey L.; Doel, Ron (30 May 1986). Hubert N. Alyea, Transcript of Interviews Conducted by Jeffrey L. Sturchio and Ron Doel at Princeton, New Jersey on 22 and 30 May 1986 (PDF). Philadelphia, PA: The Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry.

External links[edit]