Piecing Together the Profiles of Two NIST Chemists Taken Too Soon

Riley Wilson, Social Media Coordinator, NIST

On April 13, 1975, in the community of Wheaton, Maryland, a lone shooter allegedly targeting Black people wounded five and took the lives of two others over the course of 30 minutes before he was killed by police.

The two slain victims, Connie Stanley and John Sligh Jr., were both chemists at NIST (known at the time as the National Bureau of Standards). News reports indicated that they might have known each other through their work.

But they were in separate cars that evening and happened to be in that location for wholly different reasons. Connie was driving from a Sunday family dinner. John and his wife (who also worked at NIST, in procurement) had just gone to see The Godfather: Part II in the movie theater at the nearby Wheaton Plaza mall.

This blog post is not dedicated to the event itself, but to the stories of the NIST family we lost and their futures in science, which were cut short.

Connie Stanley

South Carolina born and raised, Connie earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at South Carolina State College in 1949. He then traveled to Washington, D.C., where he earned a master’s degree from Howard University in 1953 and became part of the NIST workforce one year later.

When he started his career at NIST, Connie turned to titanium. This metal had a high strength-to-weight ratio that made it a competitor with steel and aluminum for structural purposes, but it was more susceptible to wear and also oxidized at higher temperatures, which could lead to corrosion. Previous attempts to minimize these issues by coating the titanium in an oxidation-resistant metal hadn’t been completely successful, but that’s where Connie came in. As part of a project for the Defense Department’s Springfield Armory, he successfully laid down a protective coating on titanium, which meant the possibility of using the metal at higher temperatures (useful in car engines or gas turbines, for example).

In the late 1950s and 1960s, Connie pivoted to preparing and determining physical properties of pure hydrocarbons. This was part of a larger challenge of accurately measuring the properties of kerosene-like fuels, including combustion temperature. He also synthesized and purified organic compounds for use in “classified research,” as he described in the letter shown here.

NIST historical accounts indicate that, while in the Office of Standard Reference Materials (SRMs) in the early 1970s, Connie also participated in the development of an SRM for cholesterol purity. An iteration of the SRM is still produced today and used by clinical labs for quality control.

Outside of his scientific career, Connie was a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, a scout leader and a member of the Peoples Congregational Church, and he was in a bowling league. He is survived by two children, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Karen Williams, Connie’s daughter, writes: “As a Black man in the scientific community, we are quite sure he overcame many obstacles both professionally and personally, as we all have since his passing.”

John Sligh Jr.

Also originally from South Carolina, John earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Johnson C. Smith University and then served in the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir in Virginia for two years before coming to NIST in 1957.

He certainly wasted no time while in the D.C. metropolitan area. While in the Army and then at NIST, John took graduate-level courses at American University and Howard University and operated multiple businesses, including a gas station and a home improvement store. Although he was an entrepreneur outside of the lab, John still made quality time for family. He and his wife were a couple in every way, including driving to work together.

Many of the publications he authored related to an all-new measurement method called galvanostalametry. He and his colleague Abner Brenner came up with this unique approach to determine the concentrations of metal ions in liquids, which could be useful for measuring the amount of lead or other heavy metals in water.

To understand the concepts at play, look to this diagram from a paper by John and Abner. The U-shaped apparatus had a narrow tube on one side and larger pocket on the other. Liquid filled the narrow tube almost to the top, and it filled some of the larger pocket as well.

Does something look … off?

Take another look, specifically at the liquid. Under normal circumstances, due to the pull of gravity, you would expect it to pool at the bottom of the device.
But the circumstances weren’t normal. The device was under vacuum, sealed up with only water in both its liquid and vapor form. Inside the narrow tube, the forces between the water molecules and glass surface supported the weight of the water column, balanced against the force of gravity.

The arrangement was only barely stable. Creating just one tiny gas bubble in the tube could break the bonds between liquid molecules and the glass, unleashing the whole column of water and causing it to splash down. The formation of this gas bubble is known as “cavitation,” because the bubble’s spherical shape contains a hollow space, or a cavity.

John and Abner built on early work in cavitation by former NIST director Lyman Briggs, who passed an electrical current through the system to separate the water molecules into their gaseous, column-collapsing components. But their new idea wasn’t solely to break the water molecules apart and trigger the collapse.

To John and Abner, timing was everything. They realized that, when running the experiment using a liquid that contained more than just water, the electricity would interact with the other particles in the liquid first. Knowing how long it took for the current to flow through the other material (before it ripped the water molecules apart and triggered the column collapse), the research duo could determine the amount of the other substance in that water sample.

Ultimately, galvanostalametry didn’t make its way into our chemistry textbooks for a few reasons. Although it could compete with other techniques studying the same thing at the time, it was still tedious to repeat the process of creating the water column for each experiment. Also, the advent of more advanced electronics surpassed this creative electrolysis method.

A Personal Note, and a Plea

The fate of John and Connie hit close to home precisely because of how little known it was to me. My mother grew up in Wheaton and feels a deep connection to the community. Her side of the family makes a point at gatherings to discuss what they remember of the area in the 1970s and 1980s.

But nobody in my family, nor any of their friends from Wheaton, could recall ever hearing of the incident that took John and Connie. Only in the last few years, when information about it was posted to a local Facebook group, did we learn of it.

And both men worked at NIST, where I’ve now worked for almost three years and where my mother also once worked.

So, relying heavily on the help of John’s and Connie’s families, along with our own scientists, research librarians and alumni association, I began to dig. This blog post is the result, but there are always more questions. What brought Connie and John into science and chemistry? What hopes did they have for the future of their fields? Where could their efforts have taken them?

… And maybe that’s where you come in.

A Facebook post was enough to set me looking for context, so perhaps a blog post can do the same. If you knew John or Connie, please comment below and share your memories of them.

This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on February 16, 2022.

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About the Author

In her role as NIST social media coordinator, Riley Wilson crafts content for and manages the agency’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Reddit accounts. Prior to Riley’s entrance into public service as a federal employee in April 2019, she worked for three years as a health communications contractor with IQ Solutions, mainly providing communications support for the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders within the National Institutes of Health. There, she managed the institute’s editorial calendar of promotions across multiple communications channels, conducted data analysis across web, social and email channels, and developed content for and monitored the institute’s social media accounts.

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