James K. Littwitz, SB ’42

Mr. James K. Littwitz received his SB in Chemistry in 1942. His senior thesis carried out under the advisement of Organic Chemistry Professor, Ernest J. Huntress, was entitled Studies in the preparation of 3-nitrophthalic acid.

“My MIT degree was my ‘passport’ to being offered employment by Eastman Kodak after WWII. I spent 40 years with the company while it was still a chemical company. I had a stimulating and rewarding career starting in the Research Lab as a synthetic organic chemist, then development focused on color photographic product, manufacturing management, and finally corporate management. Throughout my career, but especially when I was still a hands-on chemist, my MIT education played an important role.” James K. Littwitz

As his contribution to his class 60th reunion gift to MIT in 2002, Mr. Littwitz created an endowed fund to support chemistry student activities with a preference for support of ClubChem, a student club that is dedicated to the MIT undergraduate chemistry community and friends. The club has benefited enormously from his generosity and the Department is extremely grateful for his support. ClubChem members hold study breaks, organize dinners with professors, design and distribute Course 5 merchandise, and plan other events with the goals of bringing together MIT’s chemistry students and interfacing with the rest of the undergraduate community. ClubChem also goes on the road to area elementary schools with the Chemistry Magic Show, a presentation of experiments designed to promote excitement and interest in science.

Liz McGrath, Communications and Development Coordinator, in the Department of Chemistry contacted Mr. Littwitz in the summer of 2009 to learn about his experiences as an undergraduate student at MIT and the decisions behind his subsequent career path.

Liz: You attended MIT during a very interesting time, i.e., commencing your studies just as the world was preparing for World War II. Would you describe for our readers what a college experience was like during those turbulent years?

JL: Our class was the last class before WWII which was able to finish without interruption. By eliminating vacations etc., graduation was moved up to the end of April instead of in early June. Since MIT at that time was a Land Grant institution, we were all required to take two years of ROTC. At the end of the second year, ROTC was optional. This was 1940, and looking at the world situation, I, along with many others, signed up for another two years which required participation in drills and classes during the school semesters and attending 6 weeks of summer camp. All of us who continued the two years of ROTC then received our commission at graduation. I was commissioned a second lieutenant in what was then called the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) and went on active duty May 8th .

We were listening to classical music in the fraternity house lounge on a Sunday afternoon in December 1941, when we heard on the radio the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor. From then on, we all realized that our lives would be changed, especially those of us in ROTC.
On entering active duty, I was stationed at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland for basic Chemical Warfare training. I was shipped overseas to Europe at the end of August 1942, and served in England with the Supply Services, then I joined First Army as Chemical Supply Officer and served in France and Germany. I returned to the US after VE day in 1945 and was stationed at the Pentagon until I was discharged in October 1945 after VJ Day.

Liz: You describe your degree from MIT as being your “passport” to being offered employment by Eastman Kodak. Would you care to elaborate a little?

JL: Through a contact with a fellow officer with whom I had served in England, and who had worked for Eastman Kodak before the war, I came to Rochester to be interviewed by Eastman Kodak after my discharge from the Army. Both the fact that I had had WWII service and that I was an MIT graduate were in my favor when I was interviewed. There was close connection between Kodak and MIT as a result of George Eastman’s major gift to MIT. At the end of my visit and interview, I was offered a position in the Kodak Research Labs as a synthetic organic chemist responsible for the preparation of fine organic chemicals.

Liz: Organic Chemistry Professor, Ernest H. Huntress, who joined the Chemistry Department in 1920 and spent in total 30 years at MIT, was your thesis advisor. Do you have any stories you would like to share about this eminent professor?

JL: While at MIT I had always found organic chemistry of great interest. When choosing a thesis topic, I was drawn to an organic chemistry project. In looking over potential projects, I came across one involving compounds which exhibited chemiluminecense which intrigued me. This was one of the fields being pursued by Professor Huntress, so I asked him if I could work on this for my thesis, and he agreed. Professor Huntress was always very encouraging, patient, and helpful.

Liz: You have been an extremely loyal alum to MIT so I am presuming that your undergraduate days here were not only very educational but hopefully also very enjoyable. Would you care to share a little on that subject? What did you do for fun? Did you “drink from the fire hose,” an expression that suggests that an MIT education offers a flood of ideas and rapid intellectual growth?

JL: I did have a very good experience, and always felt privileged to be a student there. I was fortunate with my living arrangements as I joined the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity whose house was in Brookline. My fraternity brothers were a most friendly and warm group, some of whom were extremely bright and helped any of us who were really struggling. One of the fraternity brothers who was especially helpful to freshman was David Saxon. David was a Physics major and extremely bright. He had an illustrious career, first in the California university system and then as one of MIT’s Presidents.

In my Junior year, I became President of our fraternity. My campus activity centered around crew. I went out for crew as a freshman, I was small and light weight (115 lbs.) so became a coxswain. I was coxswain of the 150’s, and worked with a wonderful bunch of guys. Crew took up a great deal of time. Very few of us had cars in those days, so I used to walk up Memorial Drive after classes to the MIT crew house which later became the BU crew house. After crew practice I would then walk over to what was then called the Cottage Farm Bridge to Brookline and the fraternity house. By then supper had already been served, so I would grab what I could and then hit the books!

Liz: On behalf of the Department, I would like to thank you very much for your wonderful support and also for agreeing to be interviewed.