In the winter of 1968, a new building was
opened on Coe campus - Peterson Hall. Peterson
Hall was to be the new science building, providing a combination for
the history of strong, quality teaching in the sciences with the best
in high tech, modern facilities. When Dr.
Ben Peterson, the namesake for the building, was taken through to tour
the building in his wheel chair, he could only remark: "It's out of
new science building must have seemed like a totally different world
from the first science building Dr. Peterson stepped into when he
arrived as a student at Coe in 1915. He obtained his master's and
doctor's degrees at the University of Iowa, returning to teach at Coe
in 1920. His impressive career was dotted
with a number of prestigious honors. He
was the department chair and published a number of scientific papers in
the 1920s in the Industrial and Engineering Chemists
Journal, Journal of Chemistry and Metallurgy, Journal of American
Chemical Society, and Journal of Physical Chemistry. He also served as president of the Iowa
Academy of Science and as an examiner on the Iowa Basic Science board. Later in his career, he was honored with the
American Chemical Society's award for meritorious achievement in
teaching and research. In 1960, the
Manufacturing Chemical Association named him one of the six college
professors to win their teacher's award. The
award winners were described as people who "...have been personally
responsible over a period of years for awakening in students a genuine
interest in chemistry, for inspiring them to serious intellectual
effort in studying that field and for developing that interest into a
continuing dedication." Today, the award and medal presented to him
remain on public display in Peterson Hall.
Peterson's impact as a chemist extended beyond his national/state
recognition and into the classroom. Dr.
Peterson dedicated his life to teaching, not just to his own personal
research. Dr. Bernie Pull, one of his
former students, said, "We saw Dr. Ben (for that's what he insisted his
students call him) a great deal of the time, not only in the classroom
and the laboratory, but many times in his office or his home for hours
of special and very personal attention and guidance.
Dr. Peterson's door was always open, as was
his heart, to the problems and needs of his students."
His love for chemistry was infectious and one
of his most astounding achievements was the great number of students
who graduated majoring in chemistry, placing Coe within the top 100
schools nationwide for total chemistry majors. At
the time of his retirement, 33 of his students had gone to do graduate
work in the sciences, at least 26 earning a Ph.D.
printed a letter from Peterson that he wrote while he was serving in
the military during WWI. Peterson had been
captain of the cadet corps in '17-18. "Peterson
left college in April, going to Camp Pike in the sanitary corps and
from there was sent to France. He had
attempted to enlist a number of times before then, but had been refused
each time because of ain injured shoulder.
from Lavenay, France; 22 Nov '18. Sent to
Bates. Describes his work testing water
quality; works at a little field station in country; provides water for
a hospital. "It is great work and very
interesting. Hardly a soldier's job but
someone has to do it." Talks about quality of
the water and how they treat it with alum. "Our
laboratory is a rather crude affair, but we have a good little library
so we do very well." Final paragraph: "We are stationed in the old province of
Britany, and the dress of the older people is very picturesque. I hope to see more of France before going back,
for it is a fascinating land."
in Alumni file on Co. H. 53rd Regt. Iowa National Guard, Co.
D 1st Iowa Inf. 1916 and 133rd Inf.
These men (with one exception) served on the
Mexican Border in 1916 and in WWI (9 were commissioned officers in WWI). List of men: James Rogers, Charles Hedberg (x
18), Russel Ackerman, Cameron Cooper, Erwin Larson, William Lee, A. M.
Parsons (x19), Ernest Peters, Dordon Dyrland (died in service), Wendell
Osbrink, Royal Tuttle, Leocadio Ancheta (x 19), Fidel Arquero (x 23),
Walter Morris (x 19), Joseph Brazil, and Ben Peterson.
May '49: Article by Peterson on the "old days" of his military outfit.
Frank Pennington, Peterson's successor as chem head, on his
predecessor, at dedication of Peterson Hall: "He was a chemist,
carpenter, plumber, electrician, counselor, orator, and above all, a
teacher and friend." Pennington recalling
the past: "As I wander through the old science building, I recall the
walls that he painted and the laboratory benches and fume hoods he
built in the hot Iowa summers. I remember
the plumbing he fixed after the many times the Physics Department was
flooded, the fuses he replace in overloaded electrical circuits, the
apparatus he repaired. And I remember the
vast quantity of odds and ends saved for decades for the time that they
might be needed." "He often commented that
'good research uncovers more questions than it answers.'
He encouraged the development of
instrumentation in the department although I had the feeling that he
felt that using a spectrophotometer was not really chemistry."
recalls Peterson teaching chemistry to two small boys on Saturday
mornings. Peterson told Pennington, "They
are too young to know it is supposed to be hard." One
later graduated from Coe and got a PhD in chemistry.
remember him gazing intently out the window, leaning on a pointer,
gathering in the attention of his class and with a deep rumbling voice
slowly beginning his oratory." Often
speaking with the "rhythm of poetry.
reported at the time of his retirement (May '58) that 150 students had
majored in chemistry under Ben Peterson; thirty had gone on to earn
election to the Cedar Rapids school board in 1952 and served for six
from a letter to Dr. Joseph McCabe (Coe Pres) and William P. Whipple
(Chairman, Bd of Trustees) on hearing that the new science building
would be named Peterson Hall:
This honor, beyond comprehension, cannot
derive from a spectacular, from a break-through, from any important
discovery as all I have ever done is the daily assignment on a job I
loved to do, each day bringing a new thrill of experience and each
tomorrow an eager anticipation. To come
through the door from my office into the classroom, pick up the long
pointer, complain a bit about the poor quality of four pieces of chalk
to be used up during the hour, facing my "kids", the young and of gay
heart, such was indeed reward enough for any man. So,
whatever it might be that the President and the Board of Trustees found
worthy of his honor; to be included among the Galaxy of names on the
Coe Campus, for me and mine it is wonderous [sic] beyond my poor power
Ones name in stone or cast in bronze in a
quiet place is one thing, but carved on the lintel over a doorway for
hurrying, youthful feet, is, as Sir Winston might have it, Quite
On a day in early November, in the year one
thousand nine hundred sixty seven, in my seventy-fifth year, lacking
six of three score since I came to this place; content and with many
memories, Sincerely and truly yours, Ben H. Peterson.
Gazette interview, 10-4-57.
in Macedonia, Ia, June 6, 1893.
Why choose science and chemistry as life work?
"I grew up on a farm, and as far back as I can remember I've been
curious about the differences of things--why some corn is white, why
some is yellow and some red, what makes them act as they do."
in Gazette, 1/18/48, speaking at a chapel service: "Uncontent will
always be a part of your lot. Whooly
contented people are kept in institutions." Accomplishments
in civilizations occur because of uncontented people.
Improvement comes from people who rebel
against status quo.
physics & athletics at Mt. Home, Idaho for one year, 1919-20. Came back to Coe in '20 or '21 as a Laboratory
Assistant, and hired as an Instructor in '22.
Dora Jane Hamblin article on Peterson (10/11/42); probably the Gazette. Another version of same article appeared in
the Courier, Sept '42.
Peterson: "The policy of the department is not to
consider a student a finished chemist until he gets his doctorate."
a frequent speaker at organizations, commencement exercises, etc. One speech manuscript exists of a speech for
members of Crescent and Sachem in the class of '51; at the Honors
Chapel, 22 May '51. Good humor,
I have done this particular stunt since
before most of you were born, and I am well aware of the most probably
fact that your reaction will be It sounds like it.
But this record establishes its own proof of
harmlessness, and likewise, its own proof that it hasn't benefited
anybody or these results should have been attained long ago. But, be that as it may be, this is another
trial designed to discipline your souls to patience and endurance, so
let's get it over with."
died in September of 1969. Survived by his
son Roger ('50) and wife Ada, who died six years later.
description: "Known as a hard taskmaster, a good story teller, an
expert chemist, a war hater and a good fellow."
from Richard F. Blomquist on Peterson as a teacher, written 12 July
'80: "When I was at Coe in the depths of the depression, Ben had to
teach all four years of Chemistry himself, without any assistance, a
Herculean task that he managed well. Not
many young profs now would even attempt this. In
spite of all this work each year, he found time to get to know many
students and to stimulate and encourage them in a time of economic