By Rolando Garcia
Natural Sciences and Mathematics Communications
For decades Eby Nell McElrath taught, mentored and inspired chemistry students at the University of Houston.
A pioneer at a time when very few women got Ph.D.s in the hard sciences, McElrath helped cultivate the tiny chemistry program at a new, fledgling university into the research and academic force it is today.
Along the way she touched the lives of students, who even 50 years after they left her classroom and lab still vividly recall her kindness, dedication and sense of humor. Now, through the generosity of one of those former students, McElrath’s legacy will continue to support and encourage the students she was so devoted to.
The Eby Nell McElrath Fellowship – established last year by Dr. Herman Suit – is just the latest chapter in a story that goes back to 1939. McElrath was a newly minted chemist with a Ph.D. from Rice University when she became a chemistry professor at UH.
The university – which was still part of the Houston public school system – had just moved to its present location and McElrath was among only four chemistry faculty members.
Science was still viewed as a man’s world back then. But McElrath’s extraordinary intelligence – combined with her warm-hearted and unassuming personality – won her the respect and admiration of both students and colleagues, said Dr. Beatrice Welch, a longtime friend of McElrath.
To Welch, a retired Houston physician who graduated from UH in 1948 with a biology degree, McElrath was a teacher, mentor, friend and like a member of the family.
McElrath, who taught organic chemistry, had a way of engaging students and teaching a challenging subject in a way they could understand.
“She was always so open and willing to help,” Welch said.
To aspiring women scientists trying to break through the old-boys network, McElrath was a mother-figure, Welch said.
One of those aspiring scientists McElrath mentored was Mamie Moy, a UH chemistry professor who first came to the university in 1952 as a graduate student.
“She understood the problems female students encounter and was so generous with her time,” Moy said. “She was always there when I needed help.”
McElrath also chaired the department for several years and played a crucial role in building up the chemistry program, Moy said. Although the department was smaller then, McElrath faced familiar challenges – finding adequate space for classrooms and labs and recruiting the best faculty.
And while she did not have the expensive, cutting edge technology available to today’s chemists, McElrath excelled as a researcher, Moy said.
During World War II she briefly left the university to do defense-related research on new gasoline compounds. She returned to UH and retired from the main campus in 1972. McElrath then went to UH-Clear Lake to help establish the chemistry program there, Moy said.
McElrath was named a professor emeritus in 1975. Born in 1912 and raised in a small north Texas town, McElrath came to Houston to study at Rice, then known as Rice Institute. She received her bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from Rice.
McElrath credited her unlikely journey from small-town girl to accomplished scientist and academic to teachers that inspired her, Welch said.
Her achievements in the classroom and the lab were impressive, but McElrath’s friends also remember her fiery red hair and mischievous sense of humor.
“She thrived on teasing and being teased and playing practical jokes,” Welch said.
Although science can be a competitive rat race, McElrath always stood out for her warmth and graciousness, Moy said.
McElrath died in 1995. Former students crowded the funeral parlor to say goodbye to their beloved professor.
“She influenced and inspired so many people,” Welch said.
The funeral was like a reunion of old friends from chemistry’s early days at UH, Moy said.
One student on whom McElrath had a lasting impact was Suit, a 1948 biology graduate who took organic and bio-chemistry courses from her.
McElrath’s energy and enthusiasm in the classroom was infectious, Suit said.
“It’s strange that a kid would be thrilled about organic chemistry, but I was,” Suit said. “(McElrath) had this vivacious, striking personality and she was so keen to help and answer questions.”
Suit even entered medical school intending to specialize in endocrinology, the most chemically based medical discipline. He later switched to radiation oncology, but credits McElrath as a key influence.
Suit eventually became the chief of radiation oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital and currently serves as the Andres Soriano Distinguished Professor of Radiation Oncology at Harvard Medical School.
Suit, who received his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine and studied radiology at Oxford University, had many excellent teachers. But without question, he said, the best one was Eby Nell McElrath.
In 2007 Suit and his wife set up a fellowship at UH’s chemistry department in McElrath’s memory. The fellowship – which is awarded on a competitive basis – supports a postdoctoral researcher working in a junior faculty member’s lab.
“In this way, the Suits’ fellowship benefits both the postdoctoral researcher and a young professor just embarking in his or her career,” said David Hoffman, chemistry department chair.
Continued support from alumni such as Suit – who were inspired by their professors at UH – not only will ensure McElrath’s legacy lives on but will keep the university on the cutting edge of chemistry scholarship and research, Hoffman said.