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Nearly six decades of teaching

Professor William Martin retires from chemistry faculty

In 1961, he was a promising pharmaceutical researcher. A young PhD recipient already wrapping up research on his first drug patent. His home base was Abbott Laboratories—a global leader in the health industry. For an organic chemist, it just didn’t get any better.

Thirty-five-year-old William Martin was on the fast track in one of the top jobs someone with his training could ever hope to get. “The pharmaceutical arena is an exciting area to work, for an organic chemist,” he admits.

In 1961, that bright research star made a major change in his career trajectory. He agreed to join the science faculty at Lake Forest College full-time. “I hated to give research up, but I wanted to teach. That was an interest I always had,” Martin said. He’d already been teaching an evening chemistry class at Lake Forest while working at Abbott, so Martin was entering familiar territory. “I knew I could do it,” he said.

And for nearly six decades, he did. Just a few months shy of his 90th birthday, Martin retired from his full-time teaching post. The spring semester of 2016 was his last. The fall semester will bring many changes. “This will be the first time I don’t have a formal lecture,” he said. Though he’s shelved his grade book for good, Martin is not hanging up his lab coat: He will continue to be a presence on campus in the Johnson Science Center, and will continue to do the instrument work he has always provided for the chemistry labs. He’ll even have time to do some of his own exploratory work in synthetic organic chemistry.

Liberal arts advocate

A graduate of Franklin and Marshall College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, Martin said he only considered leaving his post at Abbott to teach in a liberal arts college setting. At a school like Lake Forest, Martin knew he could give his undergraduate students the one-on-one attention they needed to develop a greater understanding of difficult chemistry concepts. Over the years, the Deane Professor of Biochemical and Biological Sciences shared his wisdom of general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry with dozens of students each year. After 56 years, Martin estimates he taught at least 1,600 students at the College.

What kept him going for nearly six decades? “The excitement of chemistry with students,” he said. To spark that excitement anew every year, Martin adopted a teaching style that included an open-door office policy so he could meet one-on-one with students before his 8 a.m. lectures and after classes. He even offered his time in the lab every Saturday morning.

Development of the student

His teaching method helped prepare many successful graduates who continued on to grad school, PhD work, and medical school. In fact, chemistry majors who entered graduate school consistently reported that they were at the top in their graduate-level organic chemistry classes, a fact which does not surprise Carol Deane ’74. “He not only taught us how to work through complex problems, he forced us to analyze and think,” she said. “Learning how to look at a problem, analyze it and think your way to the solution is a skill set that is important no matter what your final career.”

Andy Karigan ’77, who has been employed by Stepan Chemical Company since graduating from the College, appreciates his former professor. “There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t utilize what I learned from Dr. Martin,” Karigan said. “Ironically, I now lead a global sales team … and am forever grateful to Dr. Martin for his special teaching skills.”

“The name of my game has always been development of the student,” Martin said. “To develop them to the best of their ability and to meet the competition they’re going to have in graduate school.” While only a handful of his 30 to 50 students annually majored in chemistry, Martin felt it was his duty to bring every student up to what he considered a high level of understanding.

To achieve that high standard in his students, Martin personally wrote his tests, always including questions that required fully written answers, and frequently worked one-on-one with students. “That’s the hallmark of a liberal arts college,” he said. “I didn’t have 300 students in a big lecture. This was a different style of teaching and it took a lot of time.” Martin’s students continue to reach out to him, even though they are long past graduation. And their former professor appreciates the opportunity to advise and catch up. “I get calls all the time. I’m always happy to talk,” he said. “This is my life.”

In retirement, Martin will remain on campus—he even taught advanced organic chemistry to half a dozen students this summer—but admits the fall semester will bring more time for his favorite outside interests: plays, concerts, and opera.