Dr. Robert E.L. Humphreys

Class of 1889

Born in West Virginia and raised on the campus of Emory & Henry College, Robert E. L. Humphreys’ father was a carpenter who worked on building the Sam Small Gymnasium, Byars House, and the William Morrow Science Hall. Humphreys graduated from Emory & Henry with a major in chemistry in 1889 and taught for several years before enrolling at Johns Hopkins University, where he received his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1900.

From Johns Hopkins, Dr. Humphreys joined the Standard Oil Company in Whiting, Indiana as a research chemist in what was then the newest oil refinery in the United States. By 1910, he was the Chief Chemist for Standard Oil, engaged in research to increase the yield of gasoline extracted from crude oil. In 1912, by a process of distillation, Dr. Humphreys perfected and patented the thermal method of cracking the molecules of crude oil to yield much larger, more cost effective quantities of gasoline.

By inventing the method to produce vast supplies of inexpensive gasoline, Ph.D. Humphreys’ helped pave the way for the mass production and sale of automobiles affordable to the public.

His revolutionary discovery made possible the automotive age that distinguished 20th century America, and his success prompted companies throughout the petroleum industry to create corporate laboratories and invest heavily in research.

Dr. Humphreys’ laboratory from the oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana is preserved as a permanent exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.


Byars Hall