The Green Revolution
The term “Green Revolution” was coined to reflect the huge surge in cereal crop production in developing countries during the 1960s. The increase helped to reduce malnutrition and starvation in the Third World. The achievement netted the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for Norman Borlaug, a world-famous wheat specialist and one of the principal architects of the Green Revolution. But the roots of the Green Revolution had begun nearly three decades earlier, when a young crop scientist, George Harrar ’28, rounded up a team to tackle hunger in Mexico.
At Oberlin, Harrar had captained the track team as he pursued pre-med courses. But the Depression, which began a year after his graduation, short-circuited his plans.
When he couldn’t afford medical school, he opted instead for a less-expensive graduate program in agricultural science at Iowa State University. He might have remained an obscure plant pathologist but for a chance trip to Mexico by U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace. Wallace was appalled by the dismal state of Mexican agriculture and asked the activist Rockefeller Foundation
to tackle the problem. The foundation recruited Harrar for the job.
Harrar assembled a team of corn, potato, and wheat specialists, including Norman Borlaug, and headed south. The team labored for 10 years, coming up with new crop
varieties and other im-provements that spurred
a marked increase in Mexican food production; the Green Revolution was on. Harrar stayed at the Rockefeller Foundation and rose to become its president. Borlaug garnered the fame, but he never forgot his mentor. In a 2001 interview, Borlaug was asked to list his heroes. He had only three, he said. One of them was George Harrar.
Al Heininger ’48 is among the Oberlin graduates who have distinguished themselves by their work within a larger organization. With a doctorate from Carnegie Tech, he joined the Monsanto Company, a leading provider of agricultural products and solutions. There, he worked as a bench chemist and group leader for six years, during which time he and his colleagues were awarded 60 patents for creating a wide range of chemical reactions and compounds.
“As chemists, we worked independently on problems that were suggested or assigned by our director. My assignment was to find new uses for the chemical acrylonitrile. It led to the creation of a number of new chemical entities, some of which showed activity in our agricultural screening program as possible herbicides, nematocides, insecticides, and others,” Heininger says.
“One never knows in the beginning whether or not a product covered in a patent will have value in the commercial marketplace, but the general view is that it is better to cover it first while you find out. This is especially true for potential drugs.”
After retiring from Monsanto, Heininger was elected president of the American Chemical Society and was instrumental in creating the ACS Scholars Program to support minorities underrepresented in the sciences.
A Trumpeter’s Best Friend
With its launch in 2000, a musician’s tool called the ShulmanSystem became a long-awaited companion for trumpet players seeking to improve their performance.
“The level and degree of my passion for music led me to make something out of thin air,” says trumpeter Matt Shulman ’96. “I think that’s the way a lot of inventions occur.” What he needed was a device that could stabilize his trumpet. Trumpeters, unlike many other instrumentalists, have nothing on which to rest their instrument; the mere act of holding the trumpet can lead to bad posture, tension on the body, poor breathing, and uneven playing. “I realized that stabilization is paramount in playing more consistently,” he says.
Photo courtesy of Matt Shulman
Shulman first tried attaching a saxophone strap to the trumpet, and then a tripod, but neither gave him the two qualities he most wanted: stability and freedom of movement. Eventually, he landed on the right design—a wooden rotating “arm” that extends from the underside of the trumpet and rests on the chest. For its construction, he chose a combination of hard and soft maple woods, which he says enhances the natural resonance of the trumpet. The system takes about a week to adjust to. “The hardest things for trumpet players to let go of are usually body tension, pressure on the mouth and tongue, and excess body movement. In most cases, players are not even aware of the limitations they impose between themselves and music.”
Shulman, who is now at work on his third CD and touring Italy with the Kenny Werner Quartet, says he has used his system while teaching master classes at Julliard, New York University, and the Manhattan School of Music.
Arthur Cohen ’58 was 11 years old when his father returned home from a business trip with two 24-bass piano accordions. His sister showed little interest, but Cohen, a budding pianist, learned to play it by ear. By the time he arrived at Oberlin, his fingers had become too large to fit the accordion’s piano keys, but he could still manage the bass and chord buttons.
Photo courtesy of Arthur Cohen
Cohen’s interest in jazz and its origin in the blues began to grow at Oberlin. “I wondered what would happen if I took just the two bass sections, mine and my sister’s, and put them together on both sides of the accordion bellows,” he says. He discovered that by simultaneously depressing the pre-set major and minor triad chords on both sides, he could easily and rapidly create all sorts of bluesy sounds.
In 1973, he traveled to the Adriatic Coast of Italy, the birthplace of most Italian accordions, and commissioned construction of a compact, custom-designed version of what he calls the rhythm accordion. “The idea was to have an instrument fully versatile in a wide selection of chords and playable in all 12 keys, while being small enough
to fit in a backpack for
easy travel,” says Cohen, a retired public health
professional. The patent was granted later that year.
“I believe there is some inherited tendency to have an inventive mind, as well as a family exposure that stimulates and encourages the process of inventing things,” says David Ranney ’65, a Dallas pathologist and biomedical inventor. At age 6, he designed a novel mechanical switch, and by age 12 had figured out a way to improve the audio quality of ham radio reception. Ranney’s great Uncle Oliphant was a co-inventor of the Goss high-speed printing press. To date, Ranney holds 19 U.S. and foreign patents in measurement of cellular DNA, carbohydrate drug delivery systems, and adjustable proteomic detection systems.
Photo courtesy of David Ranney
Ranney’s first patent, issued in 1983, was on an improved way to detect cellular DNA. However, it would be the nine patents he received beginning in 1990, on carbohydrate drug delivery systems, that have had the greatest medical and commercial impact. These inventions enable much earlier detection of heart attacks and tumors, and improved treatment of sequestered and resistant tumors and infections.
“After years of studying tissues in the pathology labs at UT Southwestern Medical Center, I discovered that certain natural carbohydrates move across the capillary walls in a way that mimics the emigration of our white blood cells into disease sites,” explains Ranney. “Then I discovered that these carbohydrates penetrate the underlying tissue gels more deeply than antibodies, to enable better imaging and treatment of disease. Observing that a natural substance works like this, makes it more likely that the related synthetic product will work cooperatively in the body.”
This invention was one of two that helped finance the startup of ACCESS Pharmaceuticals, an emerging biopharmaceutical company in Dallas, which Ranney founded in 1988, and took public in 1996. Ranney’s original company is currently developing a related polymeric palatinate drug that targets tumors and forms 30 times the amount of platinum-DNA adducts as cis-platinum does in animal tumors. This drug candidate has recently given promising tumor responses in Phase I human clinical trials. Working in his current biomedical entity, Global BioMedical Solutions, Ranney continues to design improved drug delivery systems and consults on new biopharmaceuticals, including three now under development at TargeGen, Inc., in San Diego, for treating heart, tumor, and eye diseases.
Other Oberlin Inventors
Elisha Gray, x1860
On February 14, 1876, declared his intention to patent the telephone, “an apparatus for transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically.” Alexander Graham Bell beat him by two hours.
Marvin C. Stone, 1872
A journalist-turned-manufacturer who received a large number of patents, including those for the wax drinking straw and a fountain pen with a capillary feed.
John R. Rogers, 1875
Invented the Rogers Typograph, a lightweight typesetting machine that spaced or “justified” lines of type.
Alfred S. McCaskey, 1882
Received patents for a printing telegraph, a calculating machine, and a subsoiling machine that increased soil productivity.
Moses F. Walker, 1882
The first professional African American baseball player in the U.S. who, with several partners, patented a dynamite artillery shell that exploded on impact.
Albert H. Ellis, 1887
Invented an electric “adding attachment” to the Remington typewriter. The machine was marketed for uses that required writing combined with adding and subtracting.
Robert Millikan, 1891
Oberlin’s first Nobel Prize winner established the size of the charge of an electron and furthered research on the photoelectric effect, a branch of physics.
Phillip H. Ohly ’09
Invented the hot fudge sundae at a soda fountain in his downtown Oberlin drug store.
Thomas Farquhar ’18
One of the principal inventors of gasfluxing, the process of joining two metals using a dissimilar metal as the connecting agent.
Donald H. Wells ’18
Invented a high-quality oil filter that tripled the lives of automobile engines by reducing engine wear.
Ira Sprague Bowen ’19
A prominent astrophysicist who identified the mysterious “nebulium” spectral lines of gaseous nebulae as forbidden lines of ionized oxygen and nitrogen. A crater on the moon was named after him.
Dan T. Bradley ’21
Developed a special kind of rubber coupling for automotive use.
Kenneth Cole ’21
A neuroscience pioneer who invented the voltage clamp. The device allowed experiments that promoted a broader understanding of the inner electrical workings of individual neurons, which in turn opened new fields of pharmaceutical research aimed at dealing with neurological diseases such as epilepsy.
David N. Craig ’23
Developed the electrochemical method for determining the Faraday constant, a fundamental constant of physics and chemistry. This led to his participation in determining the isotopic abundance ratio and the atomic weight of silver.
Donald H. Wheeler ’27
Inventor of the sailing air mattress. Also credited with developing a fast method for testing the stability of oils and fats.
Robert S. Blackburn ’37
Designer of plastic books and other educational toys such as the Cradle Bounce, “a lively creative toy for the baby’s pen.”
Fordyce Hubbard Horn ’37
A star of General Electric’s research program who devised methods for growing ultra-pure crystals of silicon, which helped propel the use of silicon as the material of choice to power the computer revolution.
Stanley Cohen ’45
Biochemist who shared a 1986 Nobel Prize for his researches on substances produced in the body that influence the development of nerve and skin tissues. His discovery of “growth factors” has increased our understanding of wound healing, developmental malformations, and cancer, among others.
Jon Oshima ’79
Awarded a patent in February 2003 for a multiplexed motion picture camera.
Dooyong Lee ’83
Holds six patents in the area of telecommunications, including one that gives callers expected waiting times when placed on hold. The executive vice president for business development at Acacia Technologies Groups, Lee has 20 years of experience in patent licensing and technology management.