COSAM » News » Articles » 2017 » September » COSAM alumnus George Baker reflects on life as a student at API in the 1940s

COSAM alumnus George Baker reflects on life as a student at API in the 1940s

Published: 09/22/2017

By: Candis Birchfield

George Baker, pre-medicine ’45, was born in 1925 in Columbus, Georgia, and he enrolled at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in 1941. During his childhood, Baker watched his father, Dr. E.L. Baker, practice medicine. As a result, Baker was naturally drawn to the field and studied pre-medicine while a student at Auburn.

Looking through his freshman year copy of the Alabama Polytechnic Institute Bulletin, a printed catalogue containing a list of majors and course requirements, Baker notes some differences he sees between the 1940s and today as a student at Auburn.

“Today there is more interaction between different lines of reasoning,” said Baker. “The university has a bunch of different schools and colleges, and each of those have a bunch of different departments, and those different departments interact. And the research! The research aspect of Auburn now is mind boggling. If they did any research back then, I didn’t know it. Other than Swingle’s work.”

Baker is referring to Professor Homer S. Swingle, who is known as the “father of modern aquaculture” for his work in pond management.

“He had begun building ponds back then,” said Baker. “The citizens would hear about those catfish farms and write to the college wondering how they were doing it. Swingle would write out instructions and I would ship them. Today, Auburn has nuclear research and so much more. I don’t see how young people know what to take because there are so many options.”

As a pre-medicine student, Baker said he took a wide variety of science classes, including in zoology, entomology, botany, psychology, chemistry, biochemistry, and more. He specifically recalled Professor Fred Allison, who founded Auburn’s Department of Physics and provided leadership for the department for 31 years.

“Dr. Allison stepped in as a substitute for one of my physics classes because the regular instructor had been drafted to serve in WWII,” said Baker. “He was brilliant. On the first day, he put the lecture on the board and then immediately erased the whole thing because he assumed we already knew the information—he was used to teaching graduate students. He taught us D=1/2 gt2. Most of what he said was over our heads. We sure were glad when he got someone else in there, because he was so brilliant, most of the time we didn’t know what he was talking about.”

While a student at Auburn, Baker’s roommate was Jack Springer, a pharmacy student. 

“We didn’t have lab one day a week, so we would go down and see his momma and daddy who lived near Union Springs,” said Baker. “On weekends, I went home so I could be with my daddy. I could eat breakfast with him on Monday morning, get in the car, drive to Auburn, and make it to an 8 a.m. class because of the time change. I had a new car, brand new, that lasted four years. It was a straight 8-cylinder, so it had a long hood. It was the last car of that model that came to Columbus before the war. Everyone would kid me about ‘that piece of junk’ I had, but that piece of junk would outrun all of them, except Dr. Petrie’s car. He drove a big car and it went like lightening.”

As he neared graduation, Baker received acceptance to the University of Tennessee College of Medicine.

“Times were hard,” said Baker, “and I needed a paycheck more than another degree.”

As a result, Baker sought the advice of J. M. Robinson, who was the head of Zoology and Entomology.

“He suggested I write a letter to TCI (Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, which later became U.S. Steel) and see if they would hire a chemist,” said Baker. “They did. I was hired in 1946 and started on March 1. I moved up to Birmingham and worked 37 years, to the day, with the same company. I retired on March 1, 1983. I met my wife in Birmingham too, so J. M. Robinson really made a big difference in my life. A lot of the faculty at Auburn back then were absolutely amazing in how interested they were in the students. They treated their work like a calling, not just a job.”

On Oct. 12, 1946, shortly after joining TCI, Baker was drafted to serve in WWII. He served as a chemist with a technical services unit at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

“It was 14-degrees below zero and there were 14-inches of snow on the ground, and this Georgia boy thought, ‘I have made a mistake,’” said Baker. “I was lucky. I got in, in October and I was home in April. I like to tell people I fussed when they sent me home, but that’s a lie. I was glad to go.”

Baker returned to TCI and worked the first 20 years of his career in the coke plant as a chemist.

“We analyzed the organic compounds you get out of coal, and we analyzed the products that we shipped, and we analyzed the products that we collected from the gas stream,” said Baker. “If you have the money and the know-how, you can get just about any chemical compound you want out of coal. Those organic compounds have their own laws and they go by them—and you will too if you fool with them!”

Baker also worked as a chemist in the tin mill, sheet mill and wire works.

“That was some company,” said Baker. “At one time, they made just about everything. You could build an entire railroad out of what they made.”

Baker’s wife, Mabel Christine Chambers Baker, was also a scientist. The two met at the First Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham. A bacteriologist who ran the Department of Public Health Laboratory, Mabel Christine was from Tennessee.

“I noticed her and she noticed me, and the next thing you know, there were sparks.”

Baker and his wife were married in 1953 and bought their first home near Legion Field in Birmingham. In 1960, they moved to Vestavia, where they remained until 2011 when they both moved to Galleria Woods, a senior living facility.

“After retirement, I did everything Mrs. Baker needed,” said Baker. “She died on April 28, 2015, and you can’t imagine how much of a vacancy it left.”

Today, Baker enjoys spending time with friends at Galleria Woods.

“I like it here,” said Baker of Galleria Woods. “This is where they keep the dinosaurs corralled. They have a time with us too — it’s worse than herding cats.”

Besides chemistry, his wife, and many friends, Baker’s other interests include the Steel City Rifle and Pistol Club, where he has held several offices, including president. Baker has the knowhow to reload his own bullets and once competed competitively, even securing a master trophy.

“The first time I ever shot my daddy’s pistol, I was 8 or 9 years old,” he said.

Baker also loves Auburn.

“My wife bought me an Auburn watch one April as a Christmas gift, and she was so excited about it, she went ahead and gave it to me,” said Baker. “Now, I wear that watch every day. When I think back on my time as a student at Auburn, the feeling I get is kind of hard to express. The professors were so gracious with their time and attention. The campus was always so welcoming and, well, I was just glad to be there because it seemed like a place where I belonged. Campus has changed—I don’t even recognize anything on West Magnolia anymore—but some things stay the same. The words Petrie penned in the Auburn Creed around the year I graduated are as true today as they were in 1945.”

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