Dr. Will Carpenter reflects on a life of science in academia, industry and world politics

01-24-2014

Dr. Will Carpenter


From a freshman struggling to find his foothold in higher education to the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize – and about a textbook’s worth of accomplishments in between --Biological Sciences alumnus Dr. Will Carpenter became a respected and celebrated scientist and advocate for world peace.

The Mississippi gentleman now living in suburban St. Louis pursued both passions, mostly at the same time.

After receiving his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Purdue in the 1950s, Carpenter quickly started a career at Monsanto, the multinational chemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation based in St. Louis. Carpenter went on to be a major player in the development of the popular weed-killing products Roundup and Lasso.

In the 1970s, Carpenter was selected to represent Monsanto during preliminary talks for an international chemical weapons treaty. Carpenter was able to explain the science behind such chemicals to the politicians.

“If you’re not current in science, then it’s impossible to do a good job of regulating,” said Carpenter from his home he shares with his wife, Hellen Carpenter, in Chesterfield, Mo.

After his 1992 retirement from Monsanto, Carpenter was in on the formation of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The OPCW would go on to receive the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize in December.

“All of us were tickled to death, pleased. Over the last 12 or 14 years, that organization – without any publicity – carried out or closely supervised the destruction of over 80 percent of the chemical weapons in the world and chemical weapon production facilities,” Carpenter said. “We were so committed to it that it changed our lives in many ways.”

Carpenter still beams with pride for his work in the vanquishing of chemical weapons. That’s 180,000 tons – and counting -- in eliminated weapons from the globe, he said.

A two-year hitch in the Korean War jumpstarted Carpenter’s global view. He saw the horrors of war and mass destruction up close.

“I was invited to Korea by my Uncle Sam,” Carpenter quipped. “About a month before I was to be sent back to the States for a discharge for release after serving my duty, I got banged up pretty badly -- broken arms, ribs, laceration, severe concussion, cracked bones in my neck,” Carpenter recalled.

Still, Carpenter enlisted in the active army reserves when he first arrived at Purdue University to keep his passion for the military alive as well as for the steady income. Money to a graduate student was as scarce to a graduate student in the 1950s as it is today. As they say, some things never change.

Southern boy in Boiler country

Carpenter was introduced to Purdue by his mentor at Mississippi State University, Prof. William Gilles, who helped lead him through studies in agronomy, soil chemistry, plant physiology and biochemistry. Giles would become Mississippi State president in 1966.

“He counselled me to look at three universities: Purdue, Cornell or Iowa State,” Carpenter revealed. “I waited, waited and waited. Didn’t hear from the other two. Purdue gave me a teaching assistant offer and I accepted.”

“I got accepted in August of ’54. I didn’t know a single soul there.”

After getting to campus a little late, Carpenter said he had to live on the far east end of Lafayette, a long commute to campus even 60 years later.

Upon his arrival, an arm still in a sling, Carpenter took a leadership role. His time in Korea made him a strong presence and he was a year or two older than most of his fellow biology graduate students. His Southern accent and sharp wit, which he maintains both today at the age of 83, also made him stand out.

“His accent, one could tell he was not from Minnesota,” laughed Dr. Al Chiscon, who was a graduate student with Carpenter before becoming a longtime professor of Biological Sciences at Purdue. “He spoke with authority and knowledge.”

Even though Chiscon was in the genetics lab and Carpenter was under Prof. Harry Beevers, an international force in plant physiology at the time, the department was small enough where all biology graduate students knew each other well. The students would dine together and discuss research.

By his second semester, things started to settle down for Carpenter. He found a room at 250 Sheetz St. and launched into his work with Prof. Beevers.

Carpenter began research on his highly regarded – and cited – thesis, “Distributional Properties of Isocitrase in Plants.” Isocitrase is a key enzyme in the glyoxylate cycle that catalyses the conversion of isocitrate to succinate and glyoxylate.

“I was fortunate to work with him. … I spent my four years with him as my major professor,” Carpenter said of Beevers. “I shared a lab and office with another person that became a professor at Purdue in Biological, a woman named Mary Stiller,” who passed away in July.

Carpenter continued, “Dr. Beevers was an absolute joy to work for. He was from England. Been (at Purdue) three or four years when I showed up. It was four great years. Mary Stiller and I took the national pre-doctoral exams for the National Science Foundation. … We made Dr. Beevers pleased when Mary and I won two of six national botany scholarships that were available.”

Carpenter said he cherishes his time in West Lafayette off-campus almost as much as on. He spun tales of paying his $25 a month rent by donating a pint of his O negative blood. He was proud to receive his captain’s bars while at Purdue, which increased his income from the reserves, and his teaching assistantship was pretty high for the time, $150 a month. His G.I. Bill was $125 a month.

“I was really flushed,” Carpenter chuckled. “Compared to other graduate students, I was Mr. Money Bags.”

His tightness with Chiscon, Stiller and other graduate students compelled him to share his resources. His room on Sheetz was nicknamed “The Carpenter Loan Shop.” No interest charge, of course.

Gateway City bound

The stories of how many prestigious careers began are often fraught with drama, near-misses and a lot of luck. Carpenter’s hiring at Monsanto was no different:

“I went over to the job placement center, looked around and found interviews were available for DuPont, Monsanto and a few others. Went up to be scheduled for the interviewer at Monsanto. She said, ‘you’d be welcome except for two things: They’re only taking undergraduates and, two, the schedule is full.’ So I walked out of the door, out of the building, and got about 50 paces when I heard someone calling me. It was the same woman saying an undergraduate had just cancelled his interview and asked if I would like to take it. With that I wandered back, signed up, went in to Monsanto and they made me an offer on the spot.”

To begin his career, Carpenter drove his 1954 Plymouth with all of his “worldly possessions” in the backseat – bookcase, footlocker and canvas military bag. He didn’t even need to open the old car’s trunk.

While employed as a biochemist for the first 20 years of his career, Carpenter suddenly found himself as a global representative for the United States chemical industry regarding some serious issues. His science and military lives were coming together:

“I was minding my own business, the state department went to the chemical industry trade association, which represented 98 percent of all of the chemical activity in the U.S. and asked if they could supply them with a person that could be a resource for the state department and department of defense as to the chemical industry. The organizers of the trade association sent this out to all of the companies and were looking for someone that would fit four criteria for the person to work with them. They wanted someone with international experience. Two, they wanted someone that had regulatory government relations experience. No. 3, they wanted someone who did research in biological activity vs. chemical structure and the fourth was since a number of the deadliest chemical weapons were phosphorous-based, they would like someone from a company that was involved in phosphorous production. By default, I won the thing or lost it, depending on how you look at it.

“I worked with the state department until ’03, the final three years as part of the OPCW.”

Carpenter chiefly served as the U.S. representative and co-chairman of the OPCW’s science advisory board. He also helped form the board by selecting other chemical scientists.

Giving back to Purdue

Throughout his career and retirement, Carpenter has been a fixture in the College of Science, returning to give talks and to accept a slew of awards. He was given an Old Masters title in 1979 and deemed a Science Distinguished Alumnus in 1991. Carpenter was also on many boards of directors within the college.

One of his proudest Purdue achievements is the 2000 establishment of the Will & Hellen Carpenter Fund. The scholarship is unique in that it goes to fuel the junior and senior years of “late bloomers.”

“There are a lot of people who show up to Purdue as freshmen,” Carpenter explained. “Some of them bright as hell but lazy. Some of them bright as hell but went to a pathetic high school. Some of them have never been challenged. They have a disaster of a first semester but some people figure out the recipe and really do well enough the second semester and come back as a sophomore. Then they excel as a sophomore but by then, many of the fellowships and awards are pretty much taken. My scholarship is for that person in the sciences who made the greatest improvement from their freshman to their sophomore year.

“It gives those people a second shot.”

Chiscon marveled at how much Carpenter has done after his retirement – for Purdue and the planet.

“He looks for work. I tended to really retire,” Chiscon joked. “I looked up retirement in the direction and wanted to fulfill it.”

While teaching at Purdue, Chiscon was inspired by his old colleague’s global efforts and began teaching a social issues in science class. He remembered his pupils being surprised that nerve agent VX was being stored in Indiana in the town of Newport. The Newport Chemical Depot was finally neutralized in 2008.

While the OPCW has been under the radar, doing work eliminating chemical weapons for decades, Chiscon is thrilled to see the organization get its due recognition but the work continues.

“He brought industrial expertise to the field. Being high position at Monsanto, he could talk to people in government and international politics very forcefully and meaningfully about the dangers. He grew very important,” Chiscon said. “The problems go on, obviously. Attention and winning the Nobel is great but unfortunately it’s not over. Like all peace, it’s hard to put a figure on it. People will have to come after him.”

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