was born on a farm and grew up expecting to be a farmer. He later said
his uncle, a high school teacher, urged him to study science "because
the next generation of farmers was going to need scientific knowledge
to get the most out of their work." Accordingly, Marvel enrolled
at Illinois Wesleyan University in 1911 and discovered he enjoyed synthesizing
In 1915 Marvel accepted a $250 scholarship to the University of Illinois
to study chemistry, although he still planned to return to the family
farm. The dean of the graduate school, unimpressed by Marvels transcript
from Illinois Wesleyan, urged him to take an overload of courses in chemistry
so he could catch up. Because of his apparent ability to work late in
the laboratory, sleep until the last moment, and still get to breakfast
before the dining hall closed at 7:30 a.m., Marvel earned the nickname
"Speed," which he used throughout his career, even on official
Marvel did his doctoral work under department head William
Noyes and then stayed at Illinois, serving on the faculty for more
than forty years. He worked with Roger Adams
to make the organic chemistry program at Illinois preeminent in the United
States. After he retired in 1961, Marvel went on to teach and do research
at the University of Arizona for another seventeen years.
Marvel worked primarily on the structure and synthesis of polymers, and
he has been recognized as the "father" of synthetic polymer
chemistry. Marvels interest in polymers intensified when he became
a consultant for DuPont in 1928, a relationship that lasted for about
sixty years. In 1937 Marvel began to investigate the structure of vinyl
polymers, proving that the repeating units in most polymers prepared from
polyvinyl chloride are formed with chlorine atoms on alternate carbon
atoms (head-to-tail), as Hermann
Staudinger had suggested, and not on adjacent carbon atoms (head-to-head).
This work led in turn to the preparation and polymerization of new monomers.
During World War II, Marvel headed a group of chemists working on the
U.S. governments synthetic rubber program, launched to ease the
critical shortage of natural rubber needed for tires for airplanes, trucks,
and military vehicles. Marvel helped coordinate the project involving
many universities and industrial laboratories. Within a year the cooperative
effort brought forth processes for synthetic rubber, providing a successful
solution and helping to win the war.
In 1946 Marvel traveled to Germany as part of a technical intelligence
team that investigated German efforts to develop a new polymerization
process aimed at producing a better synthetic rubber by operating at 5°
C instead of at 70° C as in the older process. Marvels group
took up this research and developed the cold rubber process.
In the 1950s high temperature-resistant synthetic materials became important
in the space program and Marvel, in synthesizing these polymers, developed
cyclopolymerization. In the next decade Marvel synthesized polymers with
repeating benzimidazole units, PBIs, which were heat-resistant macromolecules
of high molecular weight. In 1980 PBI became the first man-made fiber
to be produced commercially in nearly a decade. PBI is now used as a substitute
for fiberglass and asbestos (which causes health problems), and it is
used in suits for astronauts and fire fighters because of its exceptional
resistance to fire.
Marvel was active in the American Chemical Society, serving as president
in 1945. He received the Societys Priestley Medal in 1956, and he
was founder of the High Polymer Forum that became the Division of Polymer
Chemistry, which he chaired in 1950-1951. The Carl Shipp Marvel Laboratories
of Chemistry at the University of Arizona and Marvel Hall at the ACS headquarters
in Washington, D.C., were named in his honor.