Chapter VIII: Dartmouth College


It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be

reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.

- Mahatma Gandhi

1945 – 1949

Dartmouth Days

Mom and Dad packed the station wagon with a carload of my gear, and we drove from New York City all the way to Hanover, New Hampshire. They stayed overnight so that they could help me get established in the dorm and have a nice dinner together in the Hanover Inn before going back home. Well, that’s the typical American family picture as painted by Norman Rockwell, but not my reality. I took a suitcase on the train alone. Dartmouth College at that time was an all-men’s institution (it became co-ed more recently).

My senior year in high school had been a great experience, although not without considerable stress. Living with Edith for half a year was traumatic, and then moving into a small apartment in Elmhurst, Long Island with Mother when she returned from an extended speaking tour was not exactly like coming home. Now another adventure awaited. I was of course excited and greatly looking forward to attending Dartmouth College, but relatively unaware of the subliminal stresses of the previous year. Soon after arrival in Hanover I had a mild psychosis: I believed people were talking about me, and that there was something wrong with my face. It started while I was having dinner with friends in Freshman Commons. All the guys at a nearby table suddenly looked up at me, or so I thought. You know how it goes: a remark is made about someone; another asks ‘Who is that?’ and then everyone looks in that direction. Well, it could have been they were talking about, and looking at, someone else. Regardless, I became convinced that there was something clearly wrong with me. After classes my solace was returning to the dorm, and just crashing onto my bed for hours, unable to be socially comfortable. But this was considerably deeper than usual. Unable to confide in my dorm mates, I finally went to the college psychiatrist who reassured me that there was nothing wrong with my face. That one visit seemed to be a turning point, so that I was able to return, over time, to a more normal and productive state.

Upon entering Dartmouth I knew that chemistry was to be my major. By taking the freshman qualifying exam I was excused from the first semester of that course, and subsequently managed to earn an A for the second semester. This was 1945, the beginning of the atomic era. Our professor of chemistry gave a lecture on how the atomic bomb worked that fascinated me. I wrote a ‘theme’ on it for my English class, which that professor said was the best in the class for the week. I seemed to be on a roll! But there was a strong sub-culture on campus that drew me into its undertow, a jock-machismo-drinking emphasis that played on my insecurity. I wanted to be liked. My classmates were mostly from wealthy families who lived in very upscale suburbs with excellent school systems. They were mostly from business families, with an inordinate number in the insurance sector. Many of the parents were Dartmouth alumni; their sons thus had preferential treatment for admissions; not a few of them were playboys. I suppose it was more than accidental that the movie “Animal House” was based here. I wanted to be a playboy, too, but wasn’t very successful at it since I retained intellectual interests, especially in chemistry, but my grades were slipping.

In high school I had hated history – dates, battles, presidential and royal lineages – all that was deadly boring. To satisfy a distribution requirement in college, I took a European History course. It changed my entire outlook. There were still dates and battles, but much more: the development of culture: music, language, dress, science and technology. I loved it! Mathematics in my early terms at Dartmouth was interesting and engaging, but integral calculus just about did me in. The professor had no imagination, made no attempt to make it interesting, never showed us any practical applications, and lectured in a monotone. This had a terribly negative impact later on my progress in graduate school, especially in the study of thermodynamics and physics. The sophomore course in chemistry covered qualitative analysis of the elements, a snap for me after the tutoring I’d had in Wooster.

Later there was a course in the qualitative analysis of organic chemicals that was also thoroughly enjoyed. In the first laboratory session the professor handed each of us an unknown compound that we were to identify. I took a sniff of mine; hm-m-m, it smelled like an alcohol, but too ‘heavy’ to be methanol or ethanol. I went to the shelf, pulled out a bottle of iso-propanol (commonly sold as  ‘rubbing alcohol’). Bingo! That was it. So, while the professor was still handing out unknowns to the class, I came up to him and said, “This is iso-propanol.” Without the slightest hesitation he retorted, “Prove it.” My effort to avoid hard work failed. But after doing all the laborious making of derivatives and taking melting points, etc., it was indeed iso-propanol. And therein was a lesson about the nature of science: superficial ‘sniffs’ will never satisfy the need for thorough proof when investigating the mysteries of the physical world.

Other courses in the humanities were important; I wanted a well-rounded education in the Liberal Arts. So I took Chinese Culture from Prof. Chan Wing-Tsit. On the first day of class while he was calling the roll: “Fitch. Are you any relation to George Fitch of Shanghai and Nanking?” I was pleased that he knew Dad, but it didn’t help my grades. Nevertheless I enjoyed the sojourn through the Analects of Confucius and the teachings of Lao Tzu concerning The Dao as well as many other aspects of that culture (really, those cultures) into which I was born. In my senior year I took a course in Romantic Poetry: Byron, Shelly, Goethe and Keats among others. Those readings are still with me, although d
iluted in intensity by time.

Chemistry majors are at a disadvantage with regard to extra-curricular activities because of the need to attend labs almost every afternoon. I did manage to be in the Dartmouth Glee Club for two years. Of course we gave concerts on campus, but we also toured to small towns in New England. Once we sang at Dartmouth Night in Symphony Hall in Boston. I was thrilled to be in such a hallowed place, but was totally unprepared for the ovation that we received after singing the Alma Mater and football rally songs to such a partisan crowd. The roar of shouting and applause in that venerable and staid venue just about floored me! We had a little routine that was always a crowd pleaser: Before this particular number we turned our backs to the audience, took off our jackets, dropped our trousers, and then turned around. We had on short pants, white shirts and wide, silk cravats to look just like a group of nice choirboys. Then we sang in falsetto our modification of a famous Christmas song about the birth of Christ:

Lo, how a rose ere blooming

From tender stem hath sprung.

We sing this song in English

‘Cause we know no foreign tongue.....

Well, it brought the house down! I was able to stay with the Glee Club for two years, but then it was necessary to give it up.

I had also joined the ski team, and trained primarily for cross-country, which was my forte. To get in shape, I ran regularly for miles through the golf course and along the Connecticut River. It was all soft turf under foot, beautiful countryside, and I truly enjoyed it. But when it came time for ski competitions, somehow I always went missing. Out of town tournaments meant getting to the bus before dawn, an extremely difficult task for someone with a saturnine diurnal rhythm. I just couldn’t drag myself from bed, alas! Being on the team had to come to an end anyway, as labs took up more of my afternoons.

My father, for a good part of his life, had put some of his earnings into an education trust account for his children through an insurance company. I don’t know what the others received, but as the last of six, I got the munificent sum of $25 every month, which in an Ivy League college didn’t go very far. It did help, although I had to earn more if I was to survive. Initially this was with the College dining services, and later doing all kinds of odd jobs around town, e.g. waiting on tables in local restaurants and the nurses’ house (that was fun!), working for a laundry, etc. In my junior year the chemistry department offered me a teaching assistantship (TA) that meant I had to prepare the chemicals in the stockroom and supervise freshman labs. It was an amusing shock when one of the students would come up to me to ask a question, and address me as ‘Sir’. What would be the term used today, I wonder?

During my senior ye
ar at Dartmouth the chemistry department provided me with a research lab usually assigned only to graduate students. This provided an incredible opportunity to pursue my own goals. I had in mind the synthesis of two rather complex (for me) organic compounds, one of which was cantharidin, the active ingredient in Spanish Fly. This was a sexual stimulant used by cattle breeders to encourage reluctant stud bulls to get busy and do their work. Hard to believe! Spanish Fly was also considered an aphrodisiac among tittering college boys bent on dreams of conquest. Earlier a couple of friends and I had gone to a pharmacy in nearby Lebanon (we didn’t want to be recognized locally) and asked for cantharidin, somehow expecting the pharmacist to be naive enough to let us have some. His response, “Whatsa matter, can’t you get a hard on?” devastated us. We slouched out and went back to college with our heads and other appendages hanging low. But now I could, surreptitiously, synthesize it in the lab. Well, it never happened, nor did any other chemistry of consequence. I really blew a wonderful opportunity to advance my chemical capabilities.
And the reason? I had pledged with the Zeta Psi fraternity, and in my last year in college had moved into their house. There were parties on weekends and other distractions. My downfall came with a group of card players in the house. Poker became a drug for me, so that almost every night we would play for several hours. I was good enough not to lose all my earnings over time, but not good enough to gain much either. It was the camaraderie of ‘brothers’ sitting around the table, chatting, challenging, joking, and talking about girls that kept me from
my studies. My grades suffered and almost no research was done in my lab.

All seniors had to take Comprehensive Exams prior to graduation; mine would of course be in chemistry. One afternoon while studying in the Chemistry Department library, Prof. Wolfenden who was teaching the physical chemistry course to us at the time, was chatting with me there in the library when he said, “You know, Fitch, I think if you really studied hard you could get a C in the Physical Chem Comprehensive Exam.” I was thunderstruck. A C! It was an insult, but it had its (intended?) effect. Every distraction was swept aside as I devoted all my energies to that exam over the next few months. Several days after it was over, I was bicycling through the village of Hanover on a lovely fall day when I passed the good professor raking leaves on his lawn. I stopped to chat; he looked at me as if he were seeing a strange apparition, and said with wonderment in his voice, “You wrote the best exam in the class!” I believe I was as surprised as he – but greatly pleased.

The call went out from the Drama Department for a fraternity competition of one-act plays. Zeta Psi responded, and I volunteered to be a cast member. The script about a wartime incident in an American bunker somewhere in a battle zone was written by one of the brothers. It was a good story, in which my character had to go crazy gradually during the short period of one act. Apparently I did reasonably well; the brothers were impressed, my prestige in the house rose, and we were selected for the finals runoff. We didn’t take first place, but no luster was lost. The drama critic of the Daily Dartmouth newspaper said that I was “unconvincing”, water that ran off my back without effec
t (although why do I remember that slur from an ignoramus to this day?).

Girls were not a big item in my life at Dartmouth, believe it or not. After all, it was a men’s college in a small town in the north woods of New England, land of the Puritans. The medical school’s Mary Hitchcock Hospital served as a regional medical center with a fairly sizable contingent of nurses. Student nurses lived in a home provided for them, and at one point I got a job waiting on table in their dining room, as mentioned earlier. This was a good resource of sweet and attractive young women. Nothing serious ever developed from any of those relationships, though. They just weren’t intellectually stimulating, which for me is the ultimate aphrodisiac. I did have one big crush for a while. A New York friend introduced me to her pal, Shirley from Louisiana, who had come to the Big Apple to find her fortune. We hit it off immediately, spending a lot of time together in the city. Although we had many happy hours together, I got the impression that I was to keep my hands to myself. She came up to Winter Carnival one year, but seemed subdued and not much impressed with Ivy League culture. Soon thereafter she returned to Louisiana, and even though we corresponded for a while, it was eventually over.

For my first two years in college coinciding with the last of World War II, the accelerated program was in effect, as I have said, so that we had no summer vacations. After the war, things relaxed, and I could go home to New York to live with Mother, but I needed employment. An ad appeared in the NY Times classified section for a stock clerk at the Times; so I went down
to West 43rd Street, just off Broadway, and filled in an application for the job. Shortly afterwards, someone in their personnel section called to ask if I really was a Dartmouth student and a chemistry major. Yes, that was true. Well they had a small chemistry lab in the Timefax Co. subsidiary. Would I be interested in being a lab assistant? Of course – what a stroke of luck! So I started at once in a tiny closet of a lab in the NYTimes building working on developing coatings for a sensitive paper that could be used in some of the first fax machines ever made. The machines were designed and built there on the premises. The chief chemist was a kindly gentleman who taught me the chemistry and paper-coating techniques involved. Some time later he left on vacation so that I was on my own. As it happened I developed a coating which seemed to work better than any made up to that time. The next summer, between my junior and senior college years, I returned to find a large, sunny, brand new laboratory and the position of Chief Chemist! My previous mentor had left. I was stunned but happy, and believe I made good progress for the company. At summer’s end they urged me to return after graduation, but I actually disliked living in the Big City and said no.

It was on to great adventures on the high seas for me, shipping out from La Jolla, California as a Marine Chemical Technician with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.