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Chemical Eye on Webb Feet
by Preston MacDougall


November 21, 2005

Bubbles Smith probably had many secret admirers in Toronto during the roaring '20s. Poems such as "Ojistoh", by Canadian poet Pauline Johnson, were among her repertoire as an elocutionist in what is now known as Old Massey Hall.

jpg Preston MacDougall

Some of her fans, such as former classmates, may have known that her real name was Verna. But her other secret was only revealed to family members. My turn came when I married her bubbliest granddaughter (during the otherwise boring '80s). Bubbles had webbed feet.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. If she hadn't shone so brightly on stage, she would have made one heck of a swimmer.

This commentary isn't about her webbed feet, though. It is about the Webb Feet. Actually, it is about the Webb School, in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, students of which are collectively known as the Webb Feet.

Most people in Middle Tennessee know them colloquially as "Webbies". Those who know the secret of their foot fetish may have encountered a Webb athletic team - competitively, but probably victoriously. Alternatively, they may have attended a tradition-rich impressive graduation ceremony in the new 25,000 square-foot Barton Athletic Center, and asked "What's with that big blue foot on the wall?"

What's this got to do with chemistry? Nothing, other than the fact that I have long felt the need for some sort of elocution on the best way to prepare for a college education in chemistry, or its daughter, biochemistry. Chemistry is indeed a complex modern science, and lengthy laboratory training is needed to become a "chemist". But, as an undergraduate major, it is perfectly at home in a liberal arts college.

Laboratory-intensive coursework is more expensive than, let's say poetry. Budgets being what they are, many colleges have a chemistry curriculum that doesn't meet the certification requirements of the American Chemical Society. Some schools offer two tracks, and average students, being who they are, often take the uncertified track. It has fewer "hard" courses.

"Hard" can be interpreted as "involves heavy duty math", which is why a student's preparatory education is so important. The history, as well as the timeless purpose, of the Webb School is nicely summarized by Tennessee Historical Commission roadside marker 3G 27. It is located in front of the Administration Building on Highway 82 in Bell Buckle, which is about 50 miles south of Nashville.

It reads: Webb School - Founded in 1870, at Culleoka, by William R. ("Sawney") Webb, whose brother, John M. ("Old Jack") Webb joined him in 1874. It moved here in 1886. Its curriculum, embracing chiefly Latin, Greek and Mathematics, was designed to give a sound preparatory education. Many of its early graduates have conducted schools of the same type, which were once prominent in the South's education system.

Webb is an independent, or "private" school. Private boarding schools have a long and proud history in this country, and eager young learners, from all over the world, sojourn in their dormitories. Typically, about 30% of Webbies (who number less than 300 in total) are boarders. The rest commute from neighboring cities, towns or rural areas.

Situated on 150 beautiful acres, surrounded by farmland and rolling hills, Webb is "sitting pretty" with an endowment of almost $20 million. This enables them to offer tuition assistance to the children of state university chemistry professors.

Still, it isn't free. Parents do get what they pay for, however. More importantly, at Webb students get so much more than what they put into it. There is a special camaraderie that you can sense on the campus, and the intense loyalty that they feel after graduation may help explain the size of the endowment. (I note that it is almost as large as that of my university, which has over 22,000 students, and almost 100,000 living alumni!)

Webb's classical curriculum is still performing its function. To give one example, my oldest son was so captivated by it, that he decided to become a Classics concentrator at Harvard. Studying the core of Western civilization, and all the translation that this entails, is not everyone's cup of tea, however. At various points in the last 135 years, Webb has augmented Sawney's trinity with arts, humanities, and sciences.

For instance, Drama is offered and many of the Webbies who have taken this class are among the Webb Players. Incidentally, in case you happen to be in the area, the final performance of "It's a Wonderful Life" will be on Saturday, November 18th, in the Webb Theatre, which is located in the building behind the historical marker. For more details about Webb School, or the play, you can take advantage of the webbed world in which we live, and visit

The lights will go down at 7 o'clock, and one of Bubbles Smith's many great-grandchildren will be in the role of George Bailey. Through him, we can all vicariously rediscover what should be no secret - that we all have much to be thankful for!

Thanks for reading.


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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