A Conversation with Professor Schweitzer

George Schweitzer, the Alumni Distinguished Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, began teaching at UT in 1948. Along with his PhD in inorganic and nuclear chemistry, he has doctorates in the history and philosophy of religion and in the philosophy of science.

He has written two textbooks, Radioactive Tracer Techniques and The Aqueous Chemistry of the Elements, and nineteen genealogical guidebooks, which he uses in his monthly talks on family-history research to historical societies and civic clubs.

At eighty-nine, Schweitzer still teaches a course each semester, which over several years includes freshman chemistry, upper-level inorganic chemistry (for which he wrote the book), advanced inorganic chemistry, and nuclear and radio chemistry

Torchbearer recently sat down with Schweitzer to chat about his long career at UT, his ongoing research projects—both professional and personal—and how in his seventh decade of teaching he still strives to improve the classroom experience for his students. Here are some of his responses.

On his continuing research: I do only one course each semester because I’m so heavily into research, which is financed by the Siemens company. We developed the detector for body-scan instruments like the PET body scanner. In our current research, we are looking for new detectors, better detectors that can be used in body-scan instruments.

On the secret of his longevity: Picking the right parents. It’s genetics. My parents lived into their nineties, and two of my grandparents lived into their hundreds.

On his interest in genealogy: While I was working on my doctorate in the philosophy of science, I came upon a minor figure in German scientific community of the 1700s. I most automatically asked, “I wonder if I’m kin.” It turned out that I was not, but it piqued my interest.

I had a great-grandfather who fought for the Union and a great-grandfather who fought for the Confederacy.

Are you related to the Nobel Prize–winning philosopher, physician, pianist, and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer?: No, he’s from another line. My Schweitzer ancestor was one of the 49ers, the German Democratic Revolutionaries. He emigrated from Germany to the US in 1849.

In those days the middle class and lower class were rebelling against the princes and dukes, who were signing them up for the army. He was a draft dodger. He left illegally.

I just returned from three weeks in Germany retracing my family line back to 1453 to a place near Jena, Thuringia, in what until recently was East Germany. It took me six or seven years to get clearance.

The Stasi agent, from what was formerly the East German secret police, was very, very suspicious, especially with me being a nuclear chemist.

East Germany is now magnificently different today than it was under communism. The people there have only one regret: unemployment. Under communism, everybody has a job.

On his teaching: I am conducting a flip course, in which you guide the students to teach themselves. It’s a new mode of teaching being tried at a few small liberal arts colleges, notably Earlham College in Indiana.

In freshman chemistry, there is an exam every Friday. Every Monday I ask, “Would you like to see the exam that you will have on Friday?” I hand them the exam. I show them where in the textbook, on Wikipedia, and in my notes the answers can be found. They become the instructors, and they solve the exam. On Wednesday we do it again.

It’s experimental. But the basis for it is that there is a sharp difference between being educated and trained. An educated person has the skills to teach himself anything.

Our present youngsters, the way they listen and take in information is undergoing a radical change. In lectures, I am convinced that their attention span is ten to twelve minutes, partly because the attitude is “anything I need to know I can look it up, therefore I don’t need to know it.”

In the old British system, you went to Cambridge, Oxford, Queens College, or the University of Edinburgh, where you had a three-year program for a baccalaureate degree, and it was all in Latin and Greek.

You studied the seven liberal arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In addition, you were required to master Aristotle’s physics, metaphysics, and moral philosophy.

It was a struggle. The old British theory was basically that anybody who makes it through that can teach himself anything.

A true education is the ability to manipulate information, to reassemble it and rearrange it, and to be innovative in its use so as produce new information and insights. This is of immense value, and it is my goal for every student.

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10 comments

Lori (Smith) Valone July 15, 2014 - 5:54 pm

What a wonderful article on Dr. Schweitzer! I had the pleasure to study genealogy with this delightful man and scholar in the early 80’s when I was a College Scholar. That study prompted me to change my major from molecular genetics to Civil War history. I spent several years extensively researching my ancestry, and in particular, was able to collect the muster rolls tracing their participation in the war. I’m thrilled to know that Dr. Schweitzer is still researching and teaching. It was an honor to have studied with him.

Lori (Smith) Valone
Cornelius, NC
’82 College Scholars
’85 Finance

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Evelyn Lawson Hilton July 15, 2014 - 6:04 pm

Over 50 years ago, I had Dr, Schweitzer for freshman chemistry. Having no high school chemistry preparation, I held serious doubts about any success for taking it in college. Dr. Schweitzer’s methods, mannerisms, and interest in me – and all of his students – gave me the confidence I needed to succeed. I did take advanced chemistry courses, but he was my all time favorite. Thank you, Dr. Schweitzer.

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Carolyn Lowe July 15, 2014 - 8:41 pm

Wonderful article, wonderful and unique man.

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Lisa Thompson July 16, 2014 - 12:17 am

I had Dr Schweitzer for an honors course on “The Writings of Isaac Asimov” during my freshman year 25 years ago. It was a great class. He remembered me by name for the rest of the time I was at UT and always spoke when I’d run into him. He was one of my favorite professors.

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the goden triangle India July 17, 2014 - 8:33 am

It is always pleasure to read about such wonderful personality.Every time I read about some inspirational personality and got filled with positive energy.Even I am planning to write about him on my current affairs portal which is based on education niche..

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Robert G. Perrin December 13, 2018 - 6:39 pm

If Dr. Schweitzer has taught for 70 years and is now 89, does that mean he began teaching at UT at age 19? How would that have been possible? I taught at UT 1972-2003, and I’m sorry that I never had the opportunity to met this truly inspiring man.

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Dr. John E. Davidson December 17, 2018 - 4:01 am

Dr. Schweitzer was my thesis director for my PhD in 1965. Never had a better teacher or knew a person who was so interesting to chat with. I tried to emulate him in the 35 years I taught chemistry in university.

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John Stanard February 4, 2019 - 7:11 pm

I live in the home in which Dr. Schweitzer grew up in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. He’s a delightful man, as were his parents, from whom I purchased our home. I wish George the best for the rest of his long life!

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Kenneth R. Barton February 20, 2019 - 2:53 am

I had Dr. Schweitzer for Advanced Inorganic Chemistry and for Radiochemistry in ca.1960-61 while in graduate school at UT. I am blown away to learn that he is still teaching and leading research as I am 82 years old and retired from Eastman Chemical Company nearly 20 years ago. Dr. Schweitzer deserves all the nice things and more said about him by former students. He was on the faculty committee for my PhD dissertation (1963) as it dealt with kinetic isotope effects in organic reactions. I wish him all the best and if he ever retires, a long one.

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Don Eisenberg February 20, 2019 - 3:07 pm

George Schweitzer is a legend in his own time, and that time span has no equal at the University of Tennessee! He delivered his Mortar Board “Last Lecture” a few years ago. I told him I knew he was lying as he had told me “I want to drop dead in class so at least they’ll remember ONE thing!” Dr. Schweitzer is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon for whom adjectives and superlatives are simply inadequate. UT has been truly blessed to have had him here for the equivalent of three careers’ time, getting countless students to the “ah ha! moment,” saving and improving lives through his research, and bringing much joy to many through his church and many community and other organizations. Thank you, George, for coming to Knoxville and never leaving us!

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