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Chemical Eye on Paths of Glory
by Preston MacDougall


May 28, 2006

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

This thought has come to mind recently, frequently actually. Then, last week, I was reminded of who said it and why.

As Colonel Dax, an honorably patriotic Frenchman played by a striking Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's low-budget 1957 anti-war movie "Paths of Glory", tells a scoundrelly General Mireau, this statement was an entry in the politically-charged lexicon of 18th century English author Samuel Johnson. A bit of research yields the noteworthy time and place: April 7, 1775, London.

jpg American Memorial

Samuel Johnson must have had a magical touch with words, because, against the laws of electrochemistry, this statement has held its political charge over the centuries. In fact, it is with the utmost care that I recall it here, on this Memorial Day weekend.

Firstly, by itself, the statement is not a blanket criticism of patriotism, only of scoundrels who safely wrap themselves in it. It is believed that Johnson had a particular target in mind, and in any case earlier editions of his dictionary gave a more general definition: patriot, one whose ruling passion is the love of his country.

I have many passions - hopefully, my students can tell that chemistry is one - but still consider myself a patriot, in the current lexicon: one who loves his country and zealously guards its welfare; especially a defender of popular liberty.

I also know that my liberty is largely paid for by the sacrifices of others - in the past, present and future. This is true for all Americans, since there has never been, and there never will be a Captain America.

One person who sacrificed for his country is James R. "Jim" Crenshaw of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. During World War II, Jim served his country as a B-26 tail-gunner in 555 Squadron of 386 Bomb Group in the 9th Army Air Corps. As the front moved, so did Jim's squadron, and his status as well - to the front of the plane as a togglier.

After the war, Jim continued to move up in the world. Thanks to the GI bill, he studied engineering in Mississippi, and later became a metallurgical engineer who supervised the intricate and precise construction, testing and maintenance of high-performance wind tunnels over a 30-year career. The chemistry of metals has been the most resistant to attack by atomistic logic, and there are many mysteries that await the dedicated research of future generations of metallurgical chemists. Why is gold golden, being one.

After I invited Jim to share some of his experiences working with the chemical and physical properties of metals and alloys with my Honors Chemistry class, I learned that Jim had never received his World War II medals. Records were kept, and Jim earned a three-cluster Air Medal, as well as a Commendation Medal with six out seven possible clusters. The middle of a fierce world war is not the time to worry about medals, unless you are like General Mireau that is. And when the war ended, most soldiers couldn't get back on American soil fast enough. They were eager to reunite with loved ones and take advantage of their liberty.

Decades later, after his wife died, Jim thought about the day when his two lovely granddaughters, not to mention unrelated admirers such as myself, would pay tribute to him on Memorial Day instead of on Veteran's Day. He wanted his beloved Emily and Kate to have the medals as a tangible reminder of how much he loved them, and their country. Dutifully following the instructions for obtaining his medals, which he found in a magazine for veterans, he submitted detailed paperwork to the Department of Veterans Affairs. That was five years ago.

Neither Jim, nor Colonel Dax, followed their military paths in order to obtain glory. Rather, they fought for liberty. Similarly, those whose passions take them on a path of chemical discovery, do not follow it for glory, but in search of truth - at the atomic level.

Thanks to a 22-volume series that was edited by Jeffrey Seeman, titled "Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams: Autobiographies of Eminent Chemists", I know that this is not just true for myself, but also for many of those who have been awarded prestigious medals along the way, some of them gold.

One volume was given to me by its author, Koji Nakanishi, who is a professor of chemistry at Columbia University. "A Wandering Natural Products Chemist" is the story of his path from Imperial Japan to New York City, and all the amazing discoveries made along the way by him and his many students.

In addition to his masterful skills in the laboratory, Professor Nakanishi is also a highly accomplished magician. On two occasions, I have been front and center during his magic shows, which are highly anticipated post-lecture delights no matter where in the world he speaks. Metals and alloys aren't any more baffling.

Perhaps Professor Nakanishi can make Jim's medals appear.

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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