A Teacher, a Recruiter, and a Leader
With a kind, firm hand, Lowell Coulter built a chemistry department| From Obituaries | By Katie Koch (CAS’09, COM’09)
From today’s perspective, Lowell V. Coulter’s achievements as chairman of the College of Arts & Sciences chemistry department seem characteristic of his remarkable times. As Boston University began the transition from a commuter college in the 1960s and 1970s to an international research hub, Coulter ensured that his department was on the leading edge of the University’s growth.
But it was no easy feat, his former colleagues say. From doubling the size of the chemistry faculty to procuring new space for his growing staff in what was then the College of Business Administration building, Coulter oversaw the department’s expansion with a kind but firm sensibility.
“He knew what needed to be done to develop the department and its programs and make sure that it happened,” says Morton Z. Hoffman, a professor emeritus of chemistry, who worked under Coulter.
Coulter, a College of Arts & Sciences professor emeritus of chemistry, died on May 2, 2009. He was ninety-five.
A native of Ohio, Coulter earned a bachelor’s degree from Heidelberg College, a master’s from Colorado College, and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, which housed one of the top chemistry departments in the world.
After a brief stint at the University of Idaho, he arrived at BU in 1942. He soon left to spend a year in Dayton, Ohio, where he led the section of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb’s detonation trigger.
A physical chemist, Coulter returned to the University and led the department from 1961 to 1973. As chairman, he expanded the faculty from eight members to more than twenty. He embraced biochemistry, then a new field, and hired the University’s first biochemists. He helped introduce honors-level general chemistry for undergraduates to draw top students.
“I do think Lowell had something to do with recruiting unusually good undergraduates,” says Norman Lichtin, a professor emeritus of chemistry.
Coulter’s own research interests lay in the heat-absorbing properties of clathrates, compound crystals formed from many different molecules. His field has recently come back in vogue; methane, a greenhouse gas, forms clathrates in low-temperature ice, and climate scientists have proposed using the technique to store pollutants.
“He probably sacrificed his own research program to the welfare of the department,” says Lichtin, who succeeded Coulter as chairman.
Coulter retired from teaching in 1977, leaving behind a chemistry program that was very different from the one he had found.
“Today people are doing research and writing papers and getting grant money, but the teaching legacy has not been displaced in any way,” Hoffman says. “Students are still well cared for, well educated in the chemistry department.
“That’s his legacy,” he says — “what has happened since then through the seeds he planted.”