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Chemical Eye on Skull and Boneheads: What the Yale is going on?
by Preston MacDougall


March 08, 2005

It must be rooted deep in our human nature, because despite the fact that, by definition, they do not beckon, secret societies continue to lure us.

jpg Preston MacDougall

During the 2004 general election, we knew that both John Kerry and George Bush were members of the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale University. But that's all we knew. The rest was rumor and speculation.

I confess that I fell for such a ruse in high school. After a month of general public humiliation, literally "swinging my carrot" whenever a brother was in sight, and one final "Hell night", I was in. The secrets of our chapter of the Gamma Sigma fraternity amounted to the gross, but hardly mysterious, details of the final initiation, and the handshake.

I don't know how old this fraternity is, or even if it still exists, but I doubt very much that it dates back to 1832, as does Yale's Skull and Bones. "Skull and Boneheads" refers not to the secret society, but rather a series of unfortunate events, from the perspective of this physical chemist, involving maneuvers of questionable wisdom, at the highest levels of Yale's administration.

The first such event, that I am aware of, dates back to the1870's, or at least so legend has it. At the time, the most celebrated scientist in the world was James Clerk Maxwell. A British theoretical physicist, he had just shown how electricity and magnetism were two faces of the same force. This was a stroke of genius on par with, and just as mathematically elegant, as Einstein's blending of space and time.

Around the same time, a young Yale assistant professor of mathematical physics, J. Willard Gibbs, had begun reformulating, in his own way, the entire subject of thermodynamics. It is said that great minds think alike, and for several years legend has it that Maxwell was the only one who understood the enormity of Gibbs's contribution to physics and chemistry. Still, that hardly excuses a reported exchange between Maxwell and the then-President of Yale.

The latter had come to Europe in hope of hiring a theoretical physicist, a field made quite fashionable by Maxwell, famous for his demons long before the Beatles sang of his silver hammer. When Maxwell inquired about Gibbs, the President had not even heard of him. Doh!

Over a century later, another administrative gaffe was made that would come back to haunt the Yale presidency. In 1987 John Fenn, a Yale Ph.D. who had become a member of its faculty, just like Gibbs, reached the age of 70 and was forced to retire. By itself, this isn't so bad. Many emeritus professors are quite productive when their teaching duties are reduced or eliminated. They can focus exclusively on their research, which in Dr. Fenn's case involves developing ingenious methods of weighing the (relatively) heavy, but soft, molecules that were becoming the key to advances in biotechnology.

The Yale administration, however, did not allow Dr. Fenn to keep his lab space. I don't know the details of the administrative deliberations, they're a secret, but I am pretty sure that the Chemistry Department would have preferred to keep such an accomplished chemist busy at the bench, if lab space had been available. However, most chemistry departments, mine included, are acutely short of lab space. Molecules are really small things, but the "fume hoods" needed to make them safely, and the instruments that are required to study their properties, are really big, and really expensive.

At most universities, the advanced chemistry labs are the most expensive real estate, by a wide margin, and it seems to be extremely difficult to make administrators understand that. If anybody from Hollywood is reading this, I believe that the economic future of the country would benefit from a cult classic sequel that could be called "Lab Space". Call me, we'll do lunch.

Instead of retiring, Dr. Fenn moved his lab to Virginia Commonwealth University, and fifteen years later shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In the late 1980's, while he still was at Yale, several of Dr. Fenn's ingenious techniques for weighing big biomolecules, such as proteins, without them crumbling in the process, were patented. Two earlier patents were assigned to Yale, but just before they took his lab space, Dr. Fenn filed for a final patent himself. He says "I filed for a patent because Yale didn't." The administration had decided that it was not of sufficient commercial interest. Well, they were very wrong.

On February 8, of this year, the U.S. District Court in Hartford, Connecticut, ruled in favor of Yale University, which was suing Dr. Fenn. They essentially claimed that he had stolen his own ideas!

After the decision, which transfers the patent from Dr. Fenn to Yale, and levies over $1 million in penalties, the representative of Yale's administration, whose new President was inaugurated in 1993, said "We are pleased by the court's vindication of the Yale patent policy." Doh!

Nope, the Skull and Boneheads society at Yale is no secret.


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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