Warren K. Lewis

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Warren Kendall Lewis

Warren Kendall Lewis (August 1882–March 1975) was a major leader in the development of chemical engineering in the United States. He has often been referred to as the father of modern chemical engineering for his role in coordination of chemistry, physics and engineering into an independent discipline serving the chemical industry.

Born on a farm in Laurel, Delaware, Lewis transferred to Newton, Massachusetts during his high school days. He subsequently entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1901 and enrolled as a mechanical engineering student. A year later, he transferred to the chemical engineering option of MIT's chemistry department. He graduated with a degree in chemistry and, following a year as a laboratory assistant, was awarded a fellowship to study physical chemistry at the University of Breslau (Universität Breslau) in Germany.[1]

After receiving his Sc.D. degree from the University of Breslau in 1908, Lewis returned to MIT for a year as a research associate followed by a year as a chemist in a leather tannery. He then joined the faculty of MIT as an assistant professor in 1910. He was promoted to a full professor in 1914 and subsequently served as the first head of MIT's new chemical engineering department from 1920 to 1929.

Lewis then retired from the head of the MIT's chemical engineering department so as to devote more time for his teaching and research. He remained as a member of the MIT faculty until his death in 1975 at the age of 92.[2][3][4]


In the period before 1920, Lewis recognized that an education in chemical engineering had a need for a more unifying approach. Toward that end, he worked with two other MIT professors, William H. Walker and William H. McAdams, to identify and quantify what they considered to be the "unit operations" used in the chemical industry, namely distillation and other separation processes, vaporization, heat transfer, combustion, fluid flow, filtration, and so forth. In 1923, they produced the classic book Principals of Chemical Engineering[5] which greatly stimulated the evolution of chemical engineering and encouraged the creation of chemical engineering departments in universities worldwide.

Lewis's early work as a chemist at a leather tannery got him interested in colloidal phenomena, and his subsequent research on clay, textiles and plastics expanded his knowledge and produced a book in collaboration with Lombard Squires and Geoffrey Broughton, The Industrial Chemistry of Colloidal and Amorphous Materials.[6]

All in all, Lewis published 3 books, 81 patents and about 125 papers between 1909 and 1959.[2]

Research and other activities

Of the many areas of applied research that interested Lewis, distillation was one of his prime interests. He became a consultant on petroleum refining and soon saw that the alcohol industry employed more sophisticated distillation techniques than used in petroleum refineries. Existing patents on separating petroleum fractions exhibited to him a lack of the basic physics physical chemistry of fractional distillation and he determined to put fractional distillation on a sound scientific basis. During his career, Lewis published 13 papers on distillation and 19 of his 81 patents involved distillation.

During World War I, Lewis was very active first in the Bureau of Mines and then in the Chemical Warfare Service,[7] where he was led the research on gas defense and the manufacture of poisonous gas protective devices.

In World War II, Lewis was a consultant to the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development and was appointed to participate in a committee that was assessing the military value of uranium as an explosive. By early 1944, he was also assigned to the Manhattan Project as an expert to troubleshoot the effectiveness of thermal diffusion as a complement to gaseous diffusion for enriching the amount of uranium–235 in refined uranium (U).[8]

Lewis was also involved in the development of the thermal cracking of petroleum so as to increase the yield of gasoline in petroleum refineries. When the use of fixed beds of catalysts for cracking petroleum evolved, which greatly increased the anti-knock quality and yield of gasoline, he saw that using catalysts in the form of very fine powders, suspended in the petroleum vapors to be cracked, could lead to a continuous fluid bed cracking process to replace fixed bed cracking. He and Edwin R. Gilliland (another MIT professor) participated in the development of what is now known as fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) and the first full-scale FCC unit began operation in 1942 in the midst of World War II. Fluid catalytic cracking produced a high-octane gasoline that greatly enhanced the performance of the British and American airplanes during the war. Obviously, in both wars, Lewis's engineering know-how was highly valued by many organizations.

Awards and Honors

During his lifetime, Lewis received numerous awards and honors, including those listed below:

  • 1936: Perkin Medal of the Society of Chemical Industry (British)
  • 1938: Member of the National Academy of Sciences
  • 1947: Priestley Medal of the American Chemical Society
  • 1948: President’s Medal for Merit
  • 1949; Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists
  • 1956: First American Chemical Society Award in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry
  • 1957: American Petroleum Institute Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement
  • 1958: Founders Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
  • 1965: Member of the National Academy of Engineering
  • 1965: National Medal of Science
  • 1973: Founders Medal, National Academy of Engineers


  1. In 1741, King Frederick II of Prussia seized Lower Silesia (which included the city of Wroclaw) from Poland, annexed it to Germany and renamed Wroclaw as Breslau. Two centuries later, at the end of World War II, most of Lower Silesia (including the city of Breslau) was returned to Poland and Breslau was renamed again as Wroclaw. The University of Breslau is now known as the University of Wroclaw.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Biographical Memoirs: Warren Kendall Lewis National Academies Press
  3. 1947: Warren K. Lewis C&EN Special Issue, 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal – Vol. 86, No. 14, April 7, 2008
  4. R. C. Darton, D. G. Wood and R. G. H. Prince (Editors) (2003). Chemical Engineering: Visions of the World, 1st Edition. Elsevier Science. ISBN 0-444-51309-4. 
  5. W.H. Walker, W.K. Lewis and W.H. McAdams (1923). Principles of Chemical Engineering, First Edition. McGraw-Hill. 
  6. Warren K. Lewis, Lombard Squires and Geoffrey Broughton (1942). The Industrial Chemistry of Colloidal and Amorphous Materials, 1st Edition. McMillan Company. 
  7. The Chemical Corps is the branch of the United States Army tasked with defending against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. The corps was founded as the Chemical Warfare Service during World War I and subsequently became the Chemical Corps in 1946.
  8. Refined uranium is also referred to as natural uranium and contains the same isotopic ratio as found in nature, namely 0.7 weight % uranium-235, 99.3 weight % uranium-238, and a trace of uranium-234.