Of course, he never really had to say it. You could tell just from the grin on his face, like the one he had just before he set off on a whirlwind 29-day, 41-college tour to pitch the classroom chemistry kits he’d developed. In the 1985 photo, Gilbert wears a lab coat and thick glasses, and he hoists a steaming flask of bubbling liquid toward the camera. He was the kind of chemist who delighted in the audience-pleasing powers of chemistry—the ability to turn red liquids blue, solids into gases. “He was always blowing stuff up,” recalls his daughter, Amy Berman.
Gilbert may have seemed like a mad scientist, yet he was anything but: He was a joyful, playful, and utterly reasonable one. He was born in Abington, Mass., to a family of modest means. When it was time for higher education, Gilbert hitchhiked his way from Massachusetts to Ohio to attend Antioch College, where he majored in chemistry. He earned a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Michigan State University and landed at Denison in 1964, where he worked until his retirement in 1996.
Gilbert was a perfect fit at Denison, with a curious mind and the heart of a teacher. He loved finding ways to open up students’ minds to the joys of chemistry through elaborate experiments. For years, he taught January terms in glassblowing, an art form in its own right, but also a beautiful display of the reactions that take place when heat is applied to glass. “For him, glassblowing was one big demonstration of how cool chemistry could be,” says Berman.
He carried that enthusiasm to his chemistry work outside the classroom, which included writing an 800-page textbook, Tested Demonstrations in Chemistry (1994).
He took his job, but not himself, seriously, recalls Richard Doyle, professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry. He ran chemistry department meetings with both precision and good humor. “He was famous for his puns,” Doyle recalls. “He would turn red and laugh hysterically at his own jokes.”
It was a gift he carried into his retirement, to the delight of his grandchildren, who loved the jokes almost as much as his dinosaur pancakes.
Gilbert, who held the Wickenden Chair of Chemistry, died May 13, 2015. He is survived by his wife, Marilyn (“Lynn”) Thompson Gilbert, retired director of financial aid at Denison. He also is survived by children Lisa, Jeff, and Amy Gilbert Berman ’90, and seven grandchildren, including Ben Keller ’16 and Jackson Berman ’19.
In honor of Dr. Gilbert, his family has established the Dr. George L. Gilbert Award for students at Denison. Gifts to honor him and to support that fund may be sent to Denison University, P.O. Box 716, Granville, OH 43023.