In 1948, a young George K. Schweitzer boarded a train—Ph.D. in hand and his eyes on a job in a new doctoral program in chemistry at a small university nestled in the hills of East Tennessee.
Sixty years later, Schweitzer stands as perhaps the longest-serving faculty member in the history of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Along the way two things have become clear: he has left an indelible mark on the university and the community, and he has no intention of stopping anytime soon.
When he arrived on the UT campus that spring, he interviewed with then-President Cloide Brehm. The student body president was future Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr.—one of about 3,500 students. Drawn to UT for the chance to help lead the new Ph.D. program in chemistry, one of Schweitzer’s first duties was to build a cooperative relationship with staffers in Oak Ridge.
"Oak Ridge was populated by scientists whose education had been interrupted by the war," said Schweitzer, now an Alumni Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry. "One of my jobs was to set up the joint agreement where students would stay on the job at Oak Ridge and complete their Ph.D. with us."
Schweitzer was recognized for his work by fellow faculty members—he was elected the university’s first Macebearer in 1959.
Another key moment came in the late 1950s, when Schweitzer participated in a National Science Foundation program to provide cross-training in the arts and humanities for science professors.
He traveled to Columbia University, where he studied philosophy and the intersections between religion and science. Between the fellowship and continued studies, Schweitzer went on to earn a master’s from Columbia in the philosophy of religion, and eventually a Ph.D. from New York University in the history of science.
The love of history he kindled there helped spur a lifelong interest in genealogy—he traced his own family history back to 1450s Germany—and it’s a topic he still pursues through the East Tennessee Historical Society presentations in which he takes on the roles of his various ancestors in different periods of history.
His passion for teaching is evident in the more than 110 master’s and doctoral students he has supervised. In recent years, his research has focused on the work of a company with strong UT ties—CTI, now known as Siemens Medical Imaging, and he continues to perform radiochemistry work with researchers at ORNL.
When asked about his vision for the future, Schweitzer shows the exuberance of a man for whom retirement is an entirely foreign concept.
"I’ll continue doing my research, loving it, teaching the kids and trying to drag a few more of them—even unwillingly—into the joy of learning, into some research, to get them involved. As a university, we’ll keep doing what we do best."
George K. Schweitzer, born in 1924, is a native of Missouri and a 1942 graduate of Poplar Bluff High School. He was married to his wife, Verna, until her death in 2000. He has three children and five grandchildren.