Frank Curry Mathers was born February 11, 1881 in Monroe County, Indiana to parents John Thomas and Elizabeth (Bonsall) Mathers. He graduated from Bloomington High School in 1899 and went on to attend Indiana University, graduating with an AB in Chemistry in 1903 and an AM in 1905. Mathers then attended Cornell University and graduated with his PhD in 1907.
Dr. Mathers began as an Instructor in Chemistry at Indiana University in 1903. After receiving his PhD, Mathers returned to Indiana University as an Assistant Professor in 1907, becoming an Associate Professor in 1913, and receiving a full professorship in 1923. He served as Interim Chairman of the Department of Chemistry from July 1, 1946 to June 30, 1947. Mathers’ primary research interest was in electrochemistry, especially electroplating, and he published prolifically, with over 100 research papers of his own authorship or co-authored with graduate students. He was an active member of the Electrochemical Society, including serving as President of the Society in 1940-1941. His most important discovery was a process for the preparation of fluorine gas by electrolysis using carbon anodes, discovered while working with the Chemical Warfare Service during the First World War.
Dr. Mathers combined his dedication to scientific research with an equal dedication to teaching. He held his students to high yet fair standards, and also supported them wholeheartedly in obtaining opportunities to research and gain employment. Of his over 100 research publications, many were co-authored with graduate students. Dr. Mathers was also an advocate for students outside the chemistry classroom, writing impassioned letters about curriculum change at IU, particularly with regards to the physical education and foreign language requirements.
Letter March 29, 1944, to Mr. P.S. Sikes, Chairman, Foreign Language Committee:
“The best interests for the greatest number of students should be the aim of all University requirements, and this should apply to language requirements…As many languages as possible should be offered, but all languages should be made optional…I think that foreign languages are the least valuable courses in the whole University for the great percentage of students. Language requirements are just holdovers from the earlier requirements when Greek and Latin were almost the only courses offered in the colleges.”
Letter November 26, 1945, to Dean H.T. Briscoe, Dean of Faculties and Vice President: “The most common cause of scholastic failure is too little time devoted to actual studying. Some people have the time but do not use it; others lack the necessary time due to other requirements…This school is supposed to be primarily for actual scholastic education. Everyone knows that these active physical exercises, besides the actual time consumed, incapacitate the individual for a considerable time for efficient mental effort…It is the business of the administration to see to it that the University is run for the best interests of the students and not as some group, i.e., Physical Education Faculty, wants it done.”
In addition to his work in chemistry, Dr. Mathers was a shrewd businessman and investor. He was involved in cattle and lumber, and owned several rental properties in Bloomington. He worked closely with companies to ensure the highest mutual benefit from the manufacture of his patented products.
The Mathers family is closely tied to IU. Dr. Mathers met his wife, Maude, in class at IU. The two married in 1911 and together raised two sons, both of whom attended IU: Thomas Nesbit Mathers (A.B. 1936, J.D. 1939) and William Hammond Mathers (AB 1938). Tragically, William became ill with skin cancer in his final year at IU, passing away in September 1938. It is after William that the Mathers Museum of World Cultures is named.
The Frank Curry Mathers papers at the University Archives contain materials as diverse as Dr. Mathers’ interests. His research correspondence is extensively represented, as are his original lab notebooks. The series of teaching materials represents Mathers’ interactions with his students both in and outside of the classroom, giving insight into pedagogy as well as personal relationships. One can trace major changes at IU and in Bloomington through Mathers’ opinionated letters on subjects ranging from the installation of Bloomington’s third traffic light to the athletic program at IU. Mathers’ meticulous investment records and extensive business correspondence could be of particular use to those interested in economic history or business and investment practice.