On April 2, alumni, faculty, staff, and friends convened at Pratt’s Juliana Curran Terian Design Center for a memorial service remembering Professor Marvin Charton (1931–2012), who taught organic chemistry at Pratt for more than 56 years.
"Marvin was a guiding force in bringing the Mathematics and Science Department into the mainstream of the art, design, and architecture culture at Pratt,” said department chair Carole Sirovich. “He was a brilliant chemist, moving teacher, and cherished colleague. We all miss him."
"He was a first-rate computational chemist," said Herb Tesser, a good friend and former Pratt physics professor. "In the early days, that work was done by hand, later, on small computers, and finally, on more powerful PCs. This work led to his election as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His work ethic was solid and intense, in the long tradition that has made the sciences so valuable to our society."
Charton was known and appreciated by colleagues and students alike for his dry, sharp sense of humor. He formed strong bonds with his long-term colleagues, who consistently described him as a wonderful, generous man. He was married to Adjunct Assistant Professor Barbara Charton who continues to teach science at the Institute.
He was well known for his catch phrases, which included: “Another day, another molecule . . . ” (His answer to the question “What’s going on?”) Charton’s interests extended to collecting antiquarian books and engaging in extended pun-generating sessions. Friends and family recall his many endearing quirks: that his cats had chemically significant names; that he was known by name at The Strand bookstore; and that he admired creatures commonly considered pests, such as cockroaches and ants.
Kenneth Gash, (B.S. Chemistry ’60) was a student of Charton’s the first year a bachelor’s degree was granted in chemistry. Close in age, the two became lifelong—albeit long-distance—friends as Gash settled on the west coast, teaching organic chemistry in the California State University system.
“Marvin hated lab work, but loved teaching,” recalled Gash. “He told me that he was a ‘boring coward and that labs are dangerous,’ so he searched scientific literature for things that interested him and produced scientific papers based on others' research. He regularly made breakthroughs using the same data.”
“I recall one particular assignment that Marvin gave to the class in organic chemistry. Each of us was to create a brand new organic compound—that is a molecule that had never been referenced in any available chemical literature. The learning that occurred during that project through researching the literature (before computers, and in German as well as English), and formulating synthetic methods, was far better than a full lecture course in research methods,” recalled Gash. “This was one of many of Marvin's ‘learn-by-doing’ teaching methods.”
From his first scientific publication in 1958, Charton has made major contributions to our understanding of how and why organic molecules react. Andreas Zavitsas, a professor of chemistry at Long Island University, says Charton's work has been cited in numerous research reports. “As a result, the name of Pratt Institute is known worldwide among chemists."
Many of Charton’s works have yet to be published, according to Barbara Charton, who says he was in the midst of a book to be published by Wiley & Sons that two peers in the field are completing.
Text: Bay Brown
Photos: Damon Chaky, Deborah Thompsen, Kenneth Gash