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Date: October 22, 1996
Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-5732

Hubert Alyea, Innovator in Science Teaching, Dies at 93

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Hubert N. Alyea, a professor emeritus of chemistry at Princeton University who innovated in the teaching of science and served as the inspiration for Walt Disney's movie The Absent-Minded Professor , died in his sleep at his home at Meadow Lakes in Hightstown, N.J., on Saturday. He was 93.

In the early 1960s, Professor Alyea developed a teaching technique known as TOPS (for Tested Overhead Projection Series). The system incorporated a small and inexpensive kit for what he called "armchair chemistry" -- yielding colorful demonstrations of chemical principles -- and a simple overhead projection system, allowing for vivid demonstrations before audiences numbering in the hundreds. Professor Alyea gradually expanded the system to incorporate teaching requirements in physics, biochemistry, and general science. His textbooks TOPS in Chemistry and Tested Demonstrations in General Chemistry were reprinted many times and were translated into many languages.

The TOPS system not only made for more effective teaching of science at the secondary and college levels throughout the United States, but it made teaching science by demonstration more feasible in developing nations. Professor Alyea demonstrated his techniques in 80 countries and stayed for sustained periods to teach their use in Thailand, Greece, Russia, Africa, India, Mexico, Taiwan, and South America.

Professor Alyea was known as a lecturer. He earned the nickname "Dr. Boom" from Russian observers of his demonstrations at the international science pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair in the 1950s. Walt Disney attended these same lectures and told Alyea he had sparked an idea for a movie. Disney invited Alyea to Hollywood to give a demonstration for actor Fred MacMurray, who mimicked Alyea's mannerisms for The Absent-Minded Professor . MacMurray later confessed he had never understood chemistry until he met Alyea.

For many years after his formal retirement, Professor Alyea's lecture on the nature of scientific discovery, "Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind" -- a fast-paced set of demonstrations, human-interest stories, poems, and ad libs -- was a regular and popular fixture at Princeton Reunions.

Born October 10, 1903 in Clifton, N.J., Alyea attended Princeton as an undergraduate. He boasted that he took as many English courses as chemistry courses. He also played cello for the Triangle Club and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year. After graduating in 1925, he spent a year at the Nobel Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. He then returned to Princeton, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1928.

The next years were spent as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow studying the chemical effects of radium at the University of Minnesota, and gas explosion kinetics at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute, Berlin-Dahlem. He joined Princeton as an instructor in chemistry in 1930, advancing to assistant professor in 1934, associate professor in 1944, and professor in 1954. His other research interests included chemical kinetics, chain reactions, and the mechanism of inhibition.

Professor Alyea chaired the Division of Chemical Education of the American Chemical Society. His teaching won awards from the N.J. Science Teachers Association in 1953, the Manufacturing Chemists Association in 1964, the N.J. Chapter of the American Institute of Chemists in 1966, and the National Science Teachers Association in 1991. In 1984, he received the Priestley Award from Dickinson College, and delivered a lecture on "The Spirit of Research in Teaching." Last spring, the Princeton chapter of the American Chemical Society dedicated the Hubert M. Alyea Award to be given to local high school seniors who demonstrate a love of science. He also held an honorary degree from Beaver College.

Professor Alyea had served as chemistry editor of Colliers Encyclopedia and as associate editor of the Journal of Chemical Education .

Professor Alyea served as a member of the Princeton Regional School Board during the 1950s and as an elder at the First Presbyterian Church, now known as Nassau Presbyterian Church, in Princeton. During World War II, Alyea served with the Office of Scientific Research and Development in Washington, D.C., and the Pacific. He also served the state of New Jersey as a consultant in charge of war gas defense, and later chaired the N.J. Civilian Defense Committee.

Professor Alyea was predeceased by his wife, Evelyn Shields Alyea. He is survived by a son and a daughter-in-law, Frederick N. and Retha Ballard Alyea of Bala Cynwyd, Pa.; a granddaughter, Sara Ballard Alyea, and her husband, Terrence J. Anderson of West Windsor, N.J.; two nephews, and six great-nephews and great-nieces. Frederick Alyea is a member of Princeton's Class of 1957, and Sara Alyea and Terrence Anderson, its Class of 1988. Professor Alyea's two brothers, both deceased, were Princetonians, as are his two nephews, two great-nephews and a great-niece.

Funeral services will be private. Arrangements are under the direction of the Kimble Funeral Home in Princeton. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Princeton University, in care of the Office of the Recording Secretary, Box 140, Princeton, NJ 08544-0140.

NOTE: A scanned black-and-white image of Professor Alyea performing one of his chemistry demonstrations may be found on the Internet at