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
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
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
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.