Communications and Publications, Stanhope Hall
Princeton, New Jersey 08544
Tel 609/258-3601; Fax 609/258-1301
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Date: October 22, 1996
Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-5732
Hubert Alyea, Innovator in Science Teaching, Dies at
PRINCETON, N.J. -- Hubert N. Alyea, a professor emeritus of chemistry
at Princeton University who innovated in the teaching of science and
served as the inspiration for Walt Disney's movie The
Absent-Minded Professor , died in his sleep at his home at
Meadow Lakes in Hightstown, N.J., on Saturday. He was 93.
In the early 1960s, Professor Alyea developed a teaching technique
known as TOPS (for Tested Overhead Projection Series). The system
incorporated a small and inexpensive kit for what he called "armchair
chemistry" -- yielding colorful demonstrations of chemical principles
-- and a simple overhead projection system, allowing for vivid
demonstrations before audiences numbering in the hundreds. Professor
Alyea gradually expanded the system to incorporate teaching
requirements in physics, biochemistry, and general science. His
textbooks TOPS in Chemistry and Tested
Demonstrations in General Chemistry were reprinted many times
and were translated into many languages.
The TOPS system not only made for more effective teaching of science
at the secondary and college levels throughout the United States, but
it made teaching science by demonstration more feasible in developing
nations. Professor Alyea demonstrated his techniques in 80 countries
and stayed for sustained periods to teach their use in Thailand,
Greece, Russia, Africa, India, Mexico, Taiwan, and South America.
Professor Alyea was known as a lecturer. He earned the nickname "Dr.
Boom" from Russian observers of his demonstrations at the
international science pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair in the
1950s. Walt Disney attended these same lectures and told Alyea he had
sparked an idea for a movie. Disney invited Alyea to Hollywood to
give a demonstration for actor Fred MacMurray, who mimicked Alyea's
mannerisms for The Absent-Minded Professor . MacMurray
later confessed he had never understood chemistry until he met
For many years after his formal retirement, Professor Alyea's lecture
on the nature of scientific discovery, "Lucky Accidents, Great
Discoveries and the Prepared Mind" -- a fast-paced set of
demonstrations, human-interest stories, poems, and ad libs -- was a
regular and popular fixture at Princeton Reunions.
Born October 10, 1903 in Clifton, N.J., Alyea attended Princeton as
an undergraduate. He boasted that he took as many English courses as
chemistry courses. He also played cello for the Triangle Club and was
elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year. After graduating in
1925, he spent a year at the Nobel Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. He
then returned to Princeton, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1928.
The next years were spent as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow studying
the chemical effects of radium at the University of Minnesota, and
gas explosion kinetics at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute,
Berlin-Dahlem. He joined Princeton as an instructor in chemistry in
1930, advancing to assistant professor in 1934, associate professor
in 1944, and professor in 1954. His other research interests included
chemical kinetics, chain reactions, and the mechanism of
Professor Alyea chaired the Division of Chemical Education of the
American Chemical Society. His teaching won awards from the N.J.
Science Teachers Association in 1953, the Manufacturing Chemists
Association in 1964, the N.J. Chapter of the American Institute of
Chemists in 1966, and the National Science Teachers Association in
1991. In 1984, he received the Priestley Award from Dickinson
College, and delivered a lecture on "The Spirit of Research in
Teaching." Last spring, the Princeton chapter of the American
Chemical Society dedicated the Hubert M. Alyea Award to be given to
local high school seniors who demonstrate a love of science. He also
held an honorary degree from Beaver College.
Professor Alyea had served as chemistry editor of Colliers
Encyclopedia and as associate editor of the Journal of
Chemical Education .
Professor Alyea served as a member of the Princeton Regional School
Board during the 1950s and as an elder at the First Presbyterian
Church, now known as Nassau Presbyterian Church, in Princeton. During
World War II, Alyea served with the Office of Scientific Research and
Development in Washington, D.C., and the Pacific. He also served the
state of New Jersey as a consultant in charge of war gas defense, and
later chaired the N.J. Civilian Defense Committee.
Professor Alyea was predeceased by his wife, Evelyn Shields Alyea. He
is survived by a son and a daughter-in-law, Frederick N. and Retha
Ballard Alyea of Bala Cynwyd, Pa.; a granddaughter, Sara Ballard
Alyea, and her husband, Terrence J. Anderson of West Windsor, N.J.;
two nephews, and six great-nephews and great-nieces. Frederick Alyea
is a member of Princeton's Class of 1957, and Sara Alyea and Terrence
Anderson, its Class of 1988. Professor Alyea's two brothers, both
deceased, were Princetonians, as are his two nephews, two
great-nephews and a great-niece.
Funeral services will be private. Arrangements are under the
direction of the Kimble Funeral Home in Princeton. In lieu of
flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Princeton University,
in care of the Office of the Recording Secretary, Box 140, Princeton,
NOTE: A scanned black-and-white image of Professor Alyea performing
one of his chemistry demonstrations may be found on the Internet at