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Clinton Owen Bates

Clinton Owen Bates: Chemistry Professor

Prof. Bates - What would be the effect of putting nitrates on oxides?
Freshman - I don't know.  Dad always shipped his oxides in the day time.

                    Coe Cosmos, October 21, 1912

In May of 1933 the Cedar Rapids Gazette printed an interview with C. O. Bates, asking him to talk about his Civil War memories.  Bates was raised at Cane Hill, Arkansas, site of a Civil War battle when Bates was four years old.  With a chuckle, Bates recalled "the sight of a blue-uniformed Federal soldier chasing a vigorous rooster around the Bates' house with eventual success.  Famine stalked the wasted countryside.  In an old-fashioned hand coffee-grinder Dr. Bates' mother ground wheat for a type of coarse bread."  Bates also had more frightening memories of when federal troops "entered his parents' home at Cane Hill, dumped sacks of wheat to use the bags as containers for corn appropriated from the corn crib, and then permitted the contents of a sorghum barrel to run out on the wheat as a prank."  In 1863 union soldiers ordered his parents to remove the furniture from the house and place everything under some trees because they intended to burn the house down.  Although they did set fire to the house, another union soldier extinguished the flames and saved the home.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas, Bates taught at the Tahlequah Cherokee Indian school in the Indian territory.  He then did graduate work at the University of Michigan and served as the principal of the high school before coming to Coe in 1889.  He remained at Coe for 35 years.  In addition to his work as a college teacher, Bates was for many years chemist for the Cedar Rapids water works and for the B.C.R. & N. Railway, whose tracks ran along the north side of the campus.  At various times Bates also worked as a chemist for the Douglas Starch Works, the Sinclair family packing house, and Quaker Oats.

Bates originally came to Coe as Professor of Chemistry and Physics, a double position he filled for twelve years.  The two departments were located in three rooms in the basement of Old Main.  Bates arrived at a low point in the history of the college.  Because of tensions between students and Marshall's administration, the college only had 86 students in the fall of 1889: 32 academy students, 19 freshmen, 8 sophomores, 4 juniors, and no seniors.  The college had few financial resources and scientific equipment was minimal. But Bates had a knack for finding money to furnish laboratories, and during his 35 years the department enjoyed a dramatic expansion. When he retired in 1924, the chemistry department had six well-equipped labs in Carnegie Science, staffed by three professors and ten "demonstrators."

Bates was a teacher loved and respected by his many students.  He was also a committed teacher who did not limit his teaching to the classroom.  As the chemist for the city's water works, he wrote a weekly newspaper column educating readers about such subjects as mosquitos, tuberculosis, and nitrites.  Bates was a staunch advocate for the city's efforts to ensure the city's sanitation and the health of the citizens.  For example, Bates' column in May of 1905 defended the city's passage of an anti-expectorating ordinance. 

Cedar Rapids has placed herself abreast with the foremost cities of the land in sanitary regulations.  A mighty wave of influence is passing over our civilization, giving a different view of the material world about us, causing us to change our methods of living, and enabling us to relieve or prevent a vast amount of suffering....Spitting on the sidewalk and in public places!  Both science and good manners condemn such an act.  Besides, this is the Parlor City. Why shouldn't we have the cleanest city in America. The fact is that Cedar Rapids is known far and wide as one of the most beautiful and best cared for cities in our country. It is our opportunity to maintain our reputation and to further distinguish ourselves in civic cleanliness.

Bates argued that such an ordinance not only appealed to the citizens' desire for personal cleanliness and safety, but it also "appeals to our highest ethical sense for the greatest good to the greatest number."

It was also in 1905 that the Gazette published a speech that Bates delivered before the Iowa Academy of Science, which had been meeting in Cedar Rapids.  Bates' remarks concentrated on the need for state legislation to guarantee safe drinking water.  In his newspaper columns, Bates frequently resorted to moral arguments for supporting sensible, scientific-based decisions; he adopted a similar strategy in his address before the Academy.  To have streams "reeking with filth and pollution" is evidence that our "boasted civilization" has not really progressed.  It is criminally negligent for a people to fail in adopting preventative legislation that would improve the health of the state's citizens both in urban and rural areas.

 ... there is dire need of legislation upon it; more than all, there is need of rigid enforcement of such always when they are enacted.  If but a small fractional part of the energy which has been wasted in wrangling over religious creeds and doctrines had been devoted to the real study of the divine laws of nature and a rational explanation of these phenomena as they actually exist, our state of civilization would certainly have been lifted to a higher plane.  In municipal hygiene there are three points that demand special consideration--pure water, pure air and pure food.  And the greatest of these is pure water.

By an interesting coincidence it turns out that a century later, faculty and students at Coe are still working with state and local officials in research projects which examine the quality of Iowa's water, particularly focusing on pollution levels in Cedar Lake and eastern Iowa streams.

In the fall of 1918, shortly after the Armistice was signed, the Cosmos published a letter that an ex-student, Ben Peterson, wrote to Prof. Bates.  Peterson had been a chemistry student in Bates' classroom, but in the spring of his junior year he had left Coe and ended up with an Army sanitation unit responsible for ensuring fresh water supplies for a hospital in France.  Although Bates could not have foreseen the future, Peterson would eventually return to Coe, finish his degree, succeed his mentor as head of Coe's chemistry department, and become one of the most eminent teachers in the history of the college. The combined tenures of Bates and Peterson stretch over 70 years of Coe history, a record of influence unsurpassed by faculty in any other department.

Several years after finishing his career at Coe, C. O. Bates and his wife moved to Fullerton, California where they spent their final years of retirement.  Mrs. Bates died in July of 1953.  Prof. Bates died three months later, at the age of 95.

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