James E. LuValle Fund for Excellence in Chemistry & Biochemistry

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We are celebrating Dr James Ellis “Jimmy” LuValle who graduated from UCLA’s Chemistry & Biochemistry Department 85 years ago and led an extraordinary life.

From being an Olympic medalist, to establishing the UCLA Graduate Student Association, to achieving greatness in the chemistry field for decades, Jimmy was the embodiment of the True Bruin spirit.

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LuValle at UCLA in 1935 and at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

As we continue to celebrate the astounding success of underrepresented students, we are establishing the James E. LuValle Fund for Excellence in Chemistry and Biochemistry that will support students like Jimmy, who we believe will guide our department, the scientific community and the world to great heights.

In honor of Jimmy’s memory, the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department and the Division of the Physical Sciences will both be 100% matching all donations that are given—for instance, a gift of $10,000 would become $30,000 of support.

“Jimmy LuValle’s exemplary work as a UCLA chemistry student and influential career as a scientist and science advocate offers much for us all to learn and be inspired by,” said Miguel Garcia-Garibay, dean of physical sciences in the UCLA College. “He is a beacon for our students during a challenging time when it is critical for us to make sure our future scientists have all they need to succeed.”

To learn more or participate, please contact Brooke Sanders, contribute through the online giving website or by check. If contributing by check, please make check payable to: “The UCLA Foundation” and include on the memo line ” LuValle Fund for Excellence in Chemistry & Biochemistry – #19420″. Please mail to: The UCLA Foundation, PO Box 7145, Pasadena, CA 91109-9903.

About Dr. James Ellis “Jimmy” LuValle (1912-1993)

Dr. James Ellis “Jimmy” LuValle (B.A. chemistry ’36, M.A. chemistry & physics ’37) was a trailblazing chemist known for his contributions to the field of photochemistry, an Olympic bronze medalist, a UCLA student leader and member of the track team.

Throughout his career, LuValle’s research covered electron diffraction, photochemistry, magnetic susceptibility, reaction kinetics and mechanisms, photographic theory, magnetic resonance, solid-state physics, neurochemistry and the chemistry of memory and learning.

LuValle was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1912, although most of his childhood was spent in Southern California. His interest in chemistry started at age eight, when he received a chemistry set as a Christmas gift. He tried every experiment possible, and eventually filled the house with smoke. At his mother’s insistence, the rest of his childhood experiments took place on the porch. He loved to read and had a library card before he started kindergarten, later working after school as a page at the L.A. Public Library.

While LuValle was appreciative of his experiences as an athlete, he always prioritized his scientific education. He was offered a football scholarship from Notre Dame and a football and track scholarship from USC, however, right after graduating from high school in 1931, he was hospitalized for six-months, recovering from a life-threatening illness. “While I was there I did two things,” LuValle is quoted in an Olympic Oral History as saying: “I thought about what di d I want; and I decided what I wanted was an education and that I wasn’t going to get much of an education at either Notre Dame or USC. [He was concerned that if he accepted an athletic scholarship he would have been pressured to compete and wouldn’t be able to focus on his studies.] I knew that I had the grades to go to Caltech as an undergraduate and I knew I didn’t have enough money to go there. When I did get out of the hospital I went over to Caltech and talked to them and they said, ‘Why don’t you go to UCLA for a year or so and transfer?’”

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(Left and middle) LuValle on the track in 1932. (Right) A description of LuValle from the 1935 UCLA yearbook.

Taking that advice, LuValle entered UCLA unbeknownst to the athletic department. “Nobody expected me to go there. They all figured with the offers I had—everybody knew I had offers to go elsewhere—that I wouldn’t be going there. There were actually no athletic scholarships available for track in those days at UCLA.” By the end of his first semester at UCLA LuValle earned a Regents’ Scholarship (he was a straight A student) and he started a job working as a research assistant in a departmental chemistry lab, which gave him the independence needed to focus on his studies.

While at UCLA, LuValle met future Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg who was his teaching assistant for one class and they became life-long friends. Nicknamed the “Westwood Whirlwind,” LuValle was the captain of the UCLA field team.  He was awarded the Jake Gimbel Prize once he graduated for successfully participating in athletics while maintaining his academics.

Alumnus Dr. Ralph Bauer (B.A. chemistry ’52, Ph.D. ’58) knows well that UCLA gives students an incredible opportunity to excel in athletics and academics. While at UCLA, Bauer played on John Wooden’s first UCLA basketball team and studied under future Nobel Laureate Donald Cram. Bauer has pledged a leadership gift to help launch the fundraising effort. “UCLA was instrumental in helping me understand the dimensions of the world and broadened my outlook. I’d like to pay that forward to future generations of Bruins in honor of Jimmy LuValle,” states Bauer.

In an Olympian Oral History, LuValle shared his fond memories of being a student at UCLA. “I knew all of my professors intimately. There was no such thing as going to a huge class and never knowing the professor. I argued with them, fought with them and I worked with them.”

Within six months of graduating from UCLA Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree, LuValle traveled to Berlin, Germany to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympics, where he earned a bronze medal in the 400-meter event. Competing alongside famed teammate Jessie Owens, LuValle was one of the few African American athletes who competed in the Olympics during a violent social climate for Black Americans. Not only did he withstand racism in the U.S., but also in Nazi Germany during the Olympics. LuValle is featured a the 2016 documentary “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” about the triumph of athletic accomplishment over institutionalized discrimination at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

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Steaming to Europe on the SS Manhattan in July 1936 are (from left) James LuValle, the bronze medalist in the 400 meters; Archie Williams, the gold medalist in the 400; John Woodruff, the gold medalist in the 800; Cornelius Johnson, the gold medalist in the high jump; and Mack Robinson, the silver medalist in the 200. Photo courtesy of Olympic Pride, American Prejudice LLC.

“As far as I was concerned, the day I got off the boat in New York Harbor when we returned from the Olympics, I was finished with track,” LuValle said. “It might have been that if the Olympics had been held in 1940, that I might have decided to make a stab at it, I don’t know. But in 1940 there were no Olympics, and in 1944 there were no Olympics, and by 1948 I certainly wasn’t even interested in whether there were Olympics or not, at least as far as I was concerned in competition.”

Upon returning to the United States following the Berlin games, LuValle was accepted into the chemistry graduate program at UCLA studying photochemistry, where light is used to initiate and study chemical reactions. Within a year LuValle finished the curriculum and completed his thesis, “Photochemistry of Crotonaldeyhde at Elevated Temperatures.” LuValle co-authored a peer-reviewed article on these results in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society.

A student leader while at UCLA, LuValle pushed the university’s Graduate Students Association to broaden its representation, and the organization was later integrated into the university’s student association, ASUCLA and he served as the group’s first president. Built in 1985, UCLA’s northside student center LuValle Commons was the first campus building named to honor a UCLA student. LuValle loved to visit the student center that bore his name. The LuValle coffeehouse was called “Jimmy’s” in recognition of LuValle’s “Just call me Jimmy” friendliness, which endeared him to both students and staff.

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“Jimmy’s” coffee shop, LuValle at UCLA in 1985, LuValle Commons on the UCLA campus.

LuValle earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry (with a minor in mathematics) in 1940 at the California Institute of Technology under the guidance of chemistry pioneer Professor Linus Pauling. His dissertation, titled “An Electron Diffraction Investigation of Several Unsaturated Conjugated Molecules,” detailed his research on the structure and deeper function of vinyl ether and oxalyl chloride, two important compounds that, at the time, had not been satisfactorily investigated. In his study of these two molecules, LuValle concluded that the conjugating power of two carbon-oxygen double bonds was equivalent to the conjugating power of two carbon-carbon double bonds. LuValle was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Caltech.

In 1940, after earning his Ph.D., LuValle accepted an appointment as an instructor at Fisk University, one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1941, LuValle left academia for an appointment as a Senior Research Chemist at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York. He was the first African American to be employed by the company holding various appointments where his research efforts focused on multiple projects including photographic developing agents and investigating the stability of dyes. His research led to many innovations in the development and perfection of Kodachrome and Kodacolor processes.  LuValle met his wife Jean, also a chemist, at Kodak where she was working in production control doing statistics. They were married in 1946.

During World War II, from 1941-1942, LuValle left Kodak to help with the United States war efforts. He was invited by a member of the National Defense Research Committee to join a group of scientists who were actively working to develop a suite of weapons for near-term use. LuValle felt that his potential contributions to these efforts were absolutely necessary to helping ensure the safety of the American people during World War II. In 1942 LuValle also returned briefly to Caltech to work with Pauling on war-related research, the nature of which neither was permitted to disclose. Based on his previous collaborations with Pauling, it is likely that LuValle contributed to the development of the blood plasma substitute oxypolygelatin, which was one of many government-funded projects that Pauling led during the war years. After the war, LuValle returned to Kodak where he worked until 1953.

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In 1984, LuValle in his office at Stanford University.

During his career, LuValle held positions at various industrial companies including Technical Operations, Inc. in Burlington, Massachusetts, where he served as a Senior Scientist and the Head of the Photographic Chemistry Department from 1953 until 1959, and Fairchild Space and Defense Systems in Syosset, New York, where he was Director of Research until 1968. Later in his career, he became director of physical and chemical research at Smith-Corona Marchant in Palo Alto, California. When the company closed, Stanford University asked Lu Valle to lead the first-year chemistry lab, and he agreed, ending his career by returning to education and mentorship.

Over the course of his career, LuValle published over 30 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and held eight patents. In 1987, LuValle received the Alumni Distinguished Service Award from California Institute of Technology and the Professional Achievement Award from the UCLA.

All three of LuValle’s children pursued careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The couple’s eldest son, John Vernon, earned a degree in physics at Williams College, and the younger son, Michael James earned a PhD in statistics from the University of California, Davis. The couple’s daughter, Phyllis Ann, earned a doctoral degree in molecular biology from the University of Utah.

LuValle died of a heart attack on January 30, 1993 at the age of 80 while on vacation in New Zealand.

“LuValle was known as a brilliant, sincere and dedicated scientist who made an impact on those around him through his public service,” said Neil Garg, chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department. “Our mission with this fund is to celebrate the excellence of our students and give Black students the opportunity to follow in LuValle’s footsteps.”

LuValle was profiled in a recent UCLA Newsroom article announcing the new fund.

To help us celebrate the astounding success of underrepresented students by contributing to the James E. LuValle Fund for Excellence in Chemistry and Biochemistry please contact Brooke Sanders, contribute through the online giving website or by check.

If contributing by check, please make check payable to: “The UCLA Foundation” and include on the memo line ” LuValle Fund for Excellence in Chemistry & Biochemistry – #19420″. Please mail to: The UCLA Foundation, PO Box 7145, Pasadena, CA 91109-9903.

In honor of Jimmy’s memory, the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department and the Division of the Physical Sciences will both be 100% matching all donations that are given—for instance, a gift of $10,000 would become $30,000 of support.

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, penny@chem.ucla.edu.