That Was Then: March 1961

Chemistry professor Hubert Alyea ’24 *28 — aka “Dr. Boom” — in action in 1960.
Chemistry professor Hubert Alyea ’24 *28 — aka “Dr. Boom” — in action in 1960.
Yale Joel/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images

The frenetic, pyrotechnic demonstrations of chemistry professor Hubert Alyea ’24 *28 enthralled generations of Tigers. Likewise impressed was Walt Disney, who was inspired to make a movie based on the irrepressible Alyea, The Absent-Minded Professor, which hit theaters in March 1961.

Disney saw Alyea on stage at Expo 58, the World’s Fair in Brussels, where the professor spent six months giving his thunderous “Atomic Energy: Weapon for Peace” demonstration in a replica of his Frick Hall lecture room.

His enormously complex equipment weighed half a ton, but Alyea had every vial and beaker memorized: He gave this show 2,840 times between 1945 and 1972 to audiences worldwide, all the while wreathed in clouds of smoke. Somewhat alarmed, Russian dignitaries in Brussels called him “Dr. Boom.”

Disney watched Alyea for two hours, mesmerized, and the idea for the movie was born. Later he summoned him to Hollywood to give a demonstration to the assembled actors. The movie wouldn’t exactly be educational, Disney cautioned, but Alyea didn’t mind, later calling Disney “one of the greatest educators we ever had.”

Fred Alyea ’57 joined his father for the adventure in Tinseltown and never has forgotten the gleaming limousine, the parking spot next to Walt’s, the young Princeton grads at the studio — hoping to get a job — who smiled when they recognized their former teacher.

The demonstration went well: Star Fred MacMurray said he’d never understood chemistry until that day, and he took careful note of Alyea’s every move. “You could see a lot of my father’s attributes in MacMurry’s acting,” Fred Alyea recalls — down to specific motions and gestures.

With its cheeky tale of MacMurray (“Professor Brainard”) inventing a troublesome new material called Flubber at Medfield College, The Absent-Minded Professor proved a big hit. And Alyea, who lived to age 93, always loved to tell the tale of how the professor once went to Hollywood.