The John H. Wolfenden Teaching Prize is awarded, by vote of the faculty and in consideration of student and faculty evaluations, to those chemistry graduate students who have completed their teaching requirements with unusual distinction and excellence. Recipients' names are inscribed on a plaque located in the John H. Wolfenden Reading Room in Burke Laboratory.
John H. Wolfenden joined the faculty of the Department of Chemistry in 1947 and retired in 1967. Blessed with a quick, sharp wit and an innate intolerance of hasty, imprecise thinking, he was a central figure in the intellectual development of our department during his two decades of faculty service and his long and active retirement.
John was born and raised in Failsworth, Manchester, England, where his father taught mathematics in a local school. He spent each August holiday through age 21 with his family at a farm in the English Lake District in Borrowdale, a few miles south of the town of Keswick. The weather often was wet, but every day was devoted to walking the nearby mountains and valleys. These youthful holidays, so remote from the mills and factories of industrial Manchester, had a profound and lasting impact; and the love of the out-of-doors and of mountain walking was to prove important years later in his decision to come to Dartmouth. Professor Wolfenden was educated at Manchester Grammar School, followed by Balliol College Oxford, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1922 and a master's degree in 1926.
As a graduate student he discovered the pleasures of the alps, and in 1923-24 he was president of the Oxford Mountaineering Association. He first ventured to the United States in 1925 as the Jane Eliza Proctor Visiting Fellow at Princeton, where he received a second master's degree. He was a lecturer in chemistry at Balliol College, Oxford from 1925 to 1927, and then taught at Oberlin College in Ohio during the 1927-28 academic year. From 1928 until 1947 he was a fellow and tutor in chemistry at Exeter College, Oxford, and he served as a visiting lecturer at Wesleyan University and at the University of Rochester in 1936. In 1942 John Wolfenden returned again to the United States under wartime conditions as the Principal Scientific Officer for the British Commonwealth in Washington, D.C. His wartime service was recognized by the U. S. Government in 1948 when he was awarded the Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm.
Professor Wolfenden joined Dartmouth's Department of Chemistry in 1947. For the next two decades he taught both general chemistry and physical chemistry and from time to time contributed with imagination and enthusiasm to the teaching of science courses designed for non-science majors. One such effort was a two-week segment of a team-taught course. His title was "Fiery Particles," and his subject was the exciting history of physical science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when an understanding of electrons, radioactivity and the structure of atoms first was achieved. His colorful lectures concluded with the observation that the truly crucial "Fiery Particles" were not the electrons, protons, and alpha particles but the minds of the remarkable physicists and chemists who used what now seems the crudest of apparatus to make sense of a bewildering array of physical phenomena. Wolfenden's textbook, Numerical Problems in Physical Chemistry, saw four editions spanning a quarter century and was still in wide use well into his retirement years. His other publications included more than thirty research papers stretching across thermodynamics, properties of ionic solutions, electrochemistry, and kinetics, as well as five papers in the Journal of Chemical Education. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1961, and in 1964 he received the Manufacturing Chemists Association Award for college chemistry teaching.
He was active as well in the governance of the College, serving as chair of the Department of Chemistry from 1951 to 1955 and as chair of the Science Division from 1955 to 1958. As retirement neared, he undertook the daunting task of reorganizing the entire committee structure of Dartmouth's Faculty of Arts and Sciences as the chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Organization of the Faculty. This was a landmark accomplishment, and for many years his colleagues referred with appreciation to the work of the "Wolfenden Committee." The Commencement of 1969 was a special one for Dartmouth, the central event in a year-long celebration of the bicentennial of the founding of the College. It was decided that one member of the Faculty, representing the very best of that body, should be chosen to receive an honorary degree on that occasion. The Committee Advisory to the President and the Committee on Honorary Degrees selected John H. Wolfenden for this honor, and President John Sloan Dickey presented the degree with the following citation:
"Assuming, as Hovey's song proclaims, that Eleazar was the faculty, such an idyllic state of affairs has assuredly never prevailed for his eleven successors. A committee of your peers, however, has said that if one man can be the faculty to receive the College's bicentennial tribute, it should be you who, coming in 1947 from twenty years of distinguished service at Oxford, gave Dartmouth twenty years that in every sector of faculty life and work exemplified the best that is Dartmouth today. Born in Lancashire, England, educated at Oxford and Princeton, a physical chemist whose principal research interest is electrochemistry and kinetics, author of two score scholarly articles and an internationally famed text in advanced physical chemistry, a teacher par excellence of both students and peers, you are academia's answer to anyone's concern about modern man being able to span two cultures, be they science and the humanities, British and American, the mountaineer and the intellectual, the committee and the individual, the simian and the human, all with modesty, integrity, and a quiet joy. In appreciation to all the teacher-scholars whose work has built two hundred years of Dartmouth and with a prayer for her third century that your kind will always abide on the Hanover Plain, Dartmouth awards you her Doctorate of Science, honoris causa."
It is fitting that the Department of Chemistry's award for distinguished service as a teaching assistant is named for John H. Wolfenden. (Biographical sketch courtesy of Professor Rodger H. Soderberg.)
Last Updated: 11/2/11