William Eastman Spandow
June 1, 2016
By volunteer Allison Bailey
20 November, 1922. “The funeral of William Eastman Spandow, who was killed by the explosion in Havemeyer Hall Friday, will be held in the Chapel at 11 o'clock this morning.” This was the introduction of the obituary given by the Columbia Spectator on the unusual death of the 24 year old chemist. According to the newspaper, Columbia University was providing advanced programs in chemistry, physics, and engineering- but no safety standards had been set. The newspaper describes common injuries such as “many eyes, fingers, and hands have been lost in such laboratories because the educational institutions… have not yet become as thoroughly convinced… that it is possible to prevent almost every type of industrial accident by the installation of proper mechanical guards, by the revision of manufacturing processes and by safety education of the workers.” If accidents like these were common, why would safety standards be so low?
William Eastman Spandow had been educated in Paris until 1914, when he returned to America to attend college at the University of Denver. He possessed “unusual attainments” and had both a B.A. and an M.A. in physics and chemistry, being also a graduate at Memphis. It is apparent that he loved experimenting and discovering ways in which chemicals work. Unfortunately, his love of learning would be cut short. On November 17, 1922 he was in the lab busy experimenting in the manufacturing of diphenylamine- a colorless element used for the preparation of dyes and the detection of oxidizing agents in analytical chemistry. Apparently the chemists were unaware that the chemical posed any danger. The concoction had produced a great pressure and shattered the heavy steel autoclave it was placed in. The shattered steel was forcefully hurled in all directions, wounding other chemists and killing Spandow instantly, who was standing directly in front of the pressure guage. He was badly burned and cut with debris, but a large piece of metal had crushed his head, killing him instantly. The explosion was powerful enough to shatter the windows.
Spandow’s surviving co-experimenter later summarized that the accident occurred because Spandow had failed to turn off the gas heater if the pressure became too high. He recalled that other students performed the same experiment and had been successful. Before he left the premises, their professor read the gage at 112 and warned them about the heat and pressure. Just before the accident, the pressure rose to 250 lbs. per square inch, and it was concluded that the not yet extinguished gas had spread into the container and caused the explosion.
Spandow is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in the Miller section. His inscription reads “Killed in chemical laboratory of Columbia University by an explosion due to the carelessness of others.” It seems that whoever wrote the inscription also took issue with the college’s poor safety standards.
"Chemical & Metallurgical Engineering." Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2016.
"Columbia Daily Spectator 20 November 1922 — Columbia Spectator." Columbia Daily Spectator 20 November 1922 — Columbia Spectator. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2016.
"William Eastman Spandow (1897 - 1922) - Find A Grave Memorial." William Eastman Spandow (1897 - 1922) - Find A Grave Memorial. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2016.