Fifty years later, a return to campus stirs fond memories

Gary Brudvig of the Yale chemitry department shows the renovated Sterling Chemistry Lab to 50-year alumnus Lester Shulman.
Gary Brudvig (left), chair of the chemistry department and director of the Yale Energy Sciences Institute, shows the renovated Sterling Chemistry Lab to Lester Shulman ’68, who has vivid recollections of his first visit to the lab during his high school days. The 95-year-old building underwent a major overhaul recently to include state-of-the-art labs, glass-enclosed teaching labs and flexible space. (Photo credit: Brita Belli)

When Lester Shulman ’68 returned to campus on June 1 for his 50th reunion, one of his first stops was the Sterling Chemistry Lab, where he took a tour with Gary Brudvig, chair of the chemistry department and director of the Yale Energy Sciences Institute. The trip brought back fond memories for Shulman, who, in this recollection, harkens back to his first trip to Yale, some 50-plus years ago. Here is his story, in his own words:

When I was a senior in high school, I visited Yale on their open day for prospective candidates. After all the lectures and presentations, we were asked if there were any special buildings we wanted to see. I picked the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory. This is what I remembered from the visit:

I approached the door to the Sterling Chemistry Lab. It was a heavy oaken door, or at least it seemed very heavy because the door was opened by pulling on a wrought-iron ring – placed in the center of the door, just under a small glass window protected by a small grill of twisted dark iron, not opposite the hinges where the leverage would have been much better.

I entered through the door into an entry hall that seemed to be straight out of medieval times. The dimensions of the floor of the hall were relatively small but the ceiling was six meters high. Facing me was an open grillwork also of iron going up to the ceiling with the motif repeated in two levels — two minor closed outer arched doors and a larger central arch double door. The major arch in the lower level had a smaller square doorway within it. That smaller door was open and was the entryway into the laboratory.

I felt that it was lucky that it was open, since the keyhole in the lock of the door was large and ancient and the key would have required two hands to hold. It was a feeling of going back in time. Even the laws of gravity seemed to be distorted. A giant chandelier that didn’t provide much light hung from the center of the ceiling on a rather massive iron chain, but instead of hanging straight downwards, the chain and lights slanted to the right. A cold chill seemed to run up my back.

Sterling Chemistry Lab on the Yale University campus
The front entrance of the Sterling Chemistry Lab. (Photo credit: Brita Belli)

Then my focus shifted from the gateway to the stairway beyond it — wide marble stairs leading upwards until disappearing from view. There were elegant handrails carved into the marble walls on either side of the stairway. Adding to my feeling that I had entered some sort of ancient temple was the fact that the marble stairs next to each handrail had been worn down by the many people who had trudged up and down them for who knows how many eons.

Our guide took us up those ancient stairs, and I passed through another time warp when I entered the laboratories. This time I was somewhere in the early industrial era. The roof was shaped like that of an early factory: a jagged repeated series of vertical windows and slanted roofs like the teeth of an upside-down saw. The well-worn lab desks were of ancient hardwood, with many grooves or carvings cut into the top. A dusty row of ancient beam balances were stored on the side shelves. They were the type of balances that you put little golden weights on one side and the material you are weighing on the other. To add to my feeling that I had entered into some chamber of the past, albeit more modern than the entry portal, I swear that there appeared to be triangular piles of dust on the knobs that protruded from the scales.

I remember staggering out of the building and taking a series of rapid deep breaths to clear away the oppressive heaviness that had just engulfed me. Apparently, I was successful. I ended up majoring in biology and chemistry.

Lester Shulman is an adviser for Public Health Services at the Israel Ministry of Health in Jerusalem. He is a retired professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, School of Public Health, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, at Tel Aviv University; and is the former head of the Laboratory of Environmental Virology, Public Health Services, Israel Ministry of Health, Sheba Medical Center, in Tel Hashomer, Israel.

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