Remembering a Pillar of the Department, V. J. Shiner, 1925-2021

Vernon J. “Jack” Shiner, Jr. was a pillar of the Chemistry Department from his appointment as an instructor in 1952 until his retirement as a Distinguished Professor in 1995.  He passed away peacefully at age 95 in May 2021.  His legacy still affects us in the Chemistry Department and on the Bloomington Campus to this very day.

2006 Oral History Interview (~30 minutes):

Jack was born in Laredo, TX in 1925 and started his studies at Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso).  He enlisted in the navy in 1944 and served as a radar technician until 1946.  He finished his undergraduate studies at Texas Western in 1947.  Jack earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry with John R. Johnson at Cornell in 1950 using deuterium substitution to determine chemical structures.  During the academic year 1950-51 he continued his work in physical organic chemistry as a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow in the laboratory of Sir Christopher Ingold at University College, London.  There he studied elimination reaction rates and his work challenged some of the prevailing wisdom at the time.  Jack spent the next academic year as a du Pont Postdoctoral Researcher at Harvard in the Laboratory of Paul Bartlett.  Jack knew then that he wanted to teach chemistry at a Ph.D. granting institution.

Chemistry Department Chair Harry Day was instrumental in recruiting him to IU (Purdue was also sought to hire him).  Jack was appointed Instructor and at that time the Department had 19 professors and IU had approximately 12,000 students.  Jack received a Du Pont young faculty summer research fellowship in 1953 and was appointed Assistant Professor in 1954.  He rapidly ascended the academic ladder with appointments to Associate Professor in 1957 and full Professor in 1960.  Professor Shiner was dedicated to the success of our doctoral students, and he instigated the “Introduction to Chemical Research” program during the 1957-1958 academic year to create a structured environment for new graduate students to determine a research topic and work on a small research project in a faculty member’s lab.  Shiner felt this experience was critical for students with no prior graduate research experience.  This program and its associated classes, C500 and C505 remain a cornerstone of the Chemistry graduate student curriculum at IUB in 64 years later in 2021.  A firm believer in international collaboration, Jack used his 1958-1959 sabbatical leave to conduct research at both the University of Montpelier in France and University College, London.

In 1962 he was elected to succeed Professor Day as Chair of the Department.  1962 was a hectic year for Chemistry as construction of an 8-story addition to the original 4-story building (finished in 1931) had started in October 1961.  This addition more than doubled the size of our facilities and provided the Department the space it needed to continue its post-war growth.  This project was very challenging to complete as it was beset with a bevy of problems that delayed its opening by 15 months.  It was finally dedicated in June 1964 with 29 faculty and 202 graduate students moving into the new space (see pages 473-485 of Professor Day’s “The Development of Chemistry at Indiana University 1829-1991” for more details on the 1964 addition).  Notably, 21 tenure track faculty were hired during Shiner’s first term as department chair (1962-1967).  Professor Shiner firmly believed that the Department must have excellent scientific instrumentation infrastructure to be successful.  Professor Day’s book and a 2003 remembrance by Professor Joe Gajewski both mentioned Shiner’s dedication to establishing and supporting excellent shared resource facilities including a glassblower, machine shop, electronics shop, multiple NMR spectrometers, high-end computing resources, a superb X-ray crystallography center, a mass spectrometry center, and microanalysis services.  As chair and a chemical physics researcher, Jack was part of IU‘s successful $3.8M University Sciences Development grant from the National Science Foundation awarded from 1967-1971. Chemistry Professor Lynne L. Merritt Jr. was the principal investigator in his role as Vice President and Dean for Research and Advanced Studies.  These funds strengthened the infrastructure Chemistry and Physics Departments immeasurably, led to multiple faculty and staff hires in those departments, and helped cement IU’s status as a leading institution in basic science research.  After serving as chair, Professor Shiner returned to teaching and research in July, 1967.  He took a sabbatical leave in Spring 1971 to again conduct further research with colleagues at University College, London.

Professor Shiner in the early 1970s

In 1973 Professor Shiner was appointed Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington.  In a 2006 oral history interview, Professor Shiner held that his felt his biggest accomplishments as Dean included the combining of the Bacteriology, Botany, and Zoology Departments into a single unified Biology Department, the completion of a thorough tenured faculty salary study with Economics Professor W. Phillip Saunders (then Associate Dean), and implementation of affirmative action policies to begin to address the salary differences between men and women in similar roles within the College.  He went on to say that he felt it was important for faculty to be involved in administration for short periods during their careers.  That is, tenured faculty should serve as a Chairs, Deans, or other leaders and then go back to the classroom and re-engage in research.  This ensures that administrators have current experience with the conditions faced by faculty and students.  The Indiana University Cyclotron Facility was under construction during his time as Dean and became operational in 1976.  He stepped down as Dean and returned to teach Organic Chemistry and continue training graduate students in 1978.  It is worth noting that Shiner was a co-author on 15 chemistry journal articles during his tenure as Dean.

Shiner’s group continued to study solvolysis reactions of a variety of substrates using isotopic labels.  Jack was appointed Distinguished Professor of Chemistry in 1980. From 1982-1988, Shiner was asked to serve again as Chair, and the most pressing task was another ambitious remodeling and addition project.  The Indiana General Assembly authorized $17.9M to renovate the 1931 and 1964 buildings as well as add a lecture hall, six teaching laboratories, and 13 research laboratories.  These additions comprise the southern and eastern portion of the current building and the beautiful tower entrance facing Simon Hall.  The renovation of the older spaces addressed very serious problems with insufficient air handling capacity that created very damp conditions in some parts of the 1964 addition, and special attention was paid to improving safety in undergraduate teaching laboratories.  Shiner was involved in assisting the architects in coming up with the final plans based on specifications gathered by previous chair Adam Allerhand, assisting the administration in securing funding from the General Assembly, and then working with the construction management team to see that the project was completed in a timely manner.  Shiner was especially proud of ensuring that the remodeled research spaces were flexible so they could be quickly and economically repurposed to meet new research challenges.  The project was finished, and the new spaces dedicated by incoming chair Paul Grieco in October 1988.

Professor Shiner’s 1985 faculty photo

In 1985 Professor Shiner was elected as a fellow to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and he was awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Professor Award that same year to guest lecture and work on joint research projects at the University of Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia) in the fall.  Jack continued to teach graduate Physical Organic Chemistry (C644) and undergraduate organic chemistry II (C342) after stepping down as chair in 1988.  In 1991, Shiner along with collaborators Zafra Lerman at Columbia College (Chicago) and Thomas Spiro at Princeton (New Jersey) were awarded an NSF grant to develop a new Chemistry course for non-science majors.  The thrust of their proposal was to use real world examples and current events to teach chemistry and science principles to students outside the sciences.  The original title was “From Ozone to Oil Spills: Chemistry, the environment, and You” and the resulting course became special sections of C101 and in 1993 at IUB, with parallel courses taught at Columbia College and Princeton.  He continued to teach C101, C121, and C342 until his retirement in 1995.  It is interesting to note that his final Faculty Activity Report mentions using color illustrations, PowerPoint, and ChemWindow to create lecture notes.  Obviously, Jack was never one to rest on his laurels or let technology pass him by.  He was a dependable stalwart of the department who continued to come into the office after his retirement.  He co-authored 7 papers and was included on 2 patent applications between 1995 and 2003.  It should be noted that when Jack retired in 1995, the Department had 37 professors and IU Bloomington had just over 35,000 undergraduate students.

Professor Shiner’s group graduated 29 Ph.D. recipients and 8 M.S. recipients; Shiner was a co-author on 112 research articles, book chapters, and conference proceedings.  Professor Emeritus Joe Gajewski described the significance of Jack’s scientific contributions as follows.  “Jack was recognized as one of the world’s experts on solvolysis and elimination reaction mechanisms, where he used the effects of uncommon isotopes of the usual elements, often deuterium, on reaction kinetics to elucidate the nature of the changes at the relevant carbons. He and his students provided proof of the developing hypothesis that the ionization of alkyl halide and arenesulfonates proceeds in three stages: intimate ion pair, solvent separated ion pair and free ion.  Depending on the alkyl residue, each of these stages would represent the slow or rate determining step of the reaction. This then led to measurements and calculations of the maximum effect that different substituents would have on a carbon bearing a hydrogen or deuterium.  These so-called fraction factors provided standards by which bonding changes could be estimated in the rate determining step of reactions.  This had significant impact on the understanding of the nature of concerted reactions like the Cope rearrangement and the Diels Alder reaction in response to substituents.  Jack’s group also studied the effect of deuterium on carbons one removed from the reactive center in SN1 reactions and verified that the donation of electrons from those carbon hydrogen bonds stabilized the developing carbocation.  This phenomenon called hyperconjugation is now an established principle in carbocation chemistry.  His expertise in kinetic isotope effects was of significant importance in collaborations with a number of other scientists in their studies of a variety of chemical, biochemical and geochemical reactions.  Jack was a core member of the isotope effects community as judged by his stature among these colleagues participating in the Isotope Effects Gordon Conferences.”  Shiner was also elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1985.

Jack and his wife of nearly 70 years, Reva, were also known as gracious hosts for departmental and university functions, and as patrons of the arts both locally in Bloomington and with the National Society of Arts and Letters.  In his spare time Jack also loved gardening and driving his beloved 1963 Jaguar XKE roadster.  Professor Milos Novotny recalls Jack as an excellent doubles tennis partner (as Shiner was a skilled lefty) and a valuable mentor during his time as a junior faculty member.  Novotny also describes Jack’s gardening acumen and the bowls of apples and plums from Shiner’s home brought to the faculty lounge.  Administrative assistant Stacy Felton recalls that even near the end of his career Jack came in every day at 8:00 am like clockwork and made time to go home for lunch with Reva before returning back to the office at 1:00 sharp.

Chairs of the Department Jim Reilly, Gary Hieftje, Jack Shiner, Paul Grieco, and David Clemmer in the mid 2000s.

It is impossible to fully summarize the impact Professor V. J. Shiner Jr. had on this department and the Bloomington campus during his 53-year career.  This author likely owes his scientific position to Jack’s leadership in establishing and supporting mass spectrometry among many other shared resource labs in Chemistry.  The Department of Biology exists in its current form partly based on his belief in cooperation between closely related disciplines and the synergy it creates.  A 38-year effort in nuclear physics, chemistry, and medicine was enabled by the cyclotron facility constructed while he was Dean, and over 110,000 square feet of laboratory and classroom space came into existence under his watches as chair.  Isaac Newton wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1675, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”  I can think of no better quote to summarize the effect Professor Shiner has had on this Department.  He is truly one of the giants that carried IU Chemistry to the stature in enjoys today.

Sources for this reflection include

  1. Professor Emeritus Harry Day’s book, “Development of Chemistry at Indiana University in Bloomington” (671 page pdf):
  2. 1995 V. J. Shiner Retirement Biography (IU Archives):
  3. 2003 Joe Gajewski IUAC article about Professor Shiner:
  4. June 2021 Jack Shiner Obituary (Bloomington Herald Times):
  5. June 2021 V. J. Shiner Obituary (Dignity Memorial):
  6. Chemical and Engineering News Obituary Oct 2021:
  7. Shiner Oral History Interview (~30 minutes):
  8. Professor Shiner’s Publication List from Scifinder:
  9. Back Catalog of IU Chemistry Alumni Newsletters from 1949-1999:
  10. Back Catalog of IU Chemistry Alumni Newsletters from 1998-2012: