Linda Sweeting, 61, chemistry professor

October 05, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Linda Sweeting, a Towson University chemistry professor who studied why wintergreen candies glow in the dark when chewed, died Sept. 28 of a heart attack at St. Joseph Medical Center. The Towson resident was 61.

A teacher of organic chemistry for the past 33 years, she researched the phenomenon of triboluminescence, the emission of light when a crystal is crushed. She also wrote and spoke widely about professional ethics for scientists.

Born in Toronto, she earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Toronto and her doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles. She spent a year as an assistant professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles before coming to Towson in 1970. She was named a professor in 1985.

"She was an honest person. She never talked about a person behind their back," said Lev Ryzhkov, a Towson chemistry professor. "She taught an ethics in science course ... which was outside her field of chemistry. This was a rare and courageous step." He said she brought important ethics issues to the forefront. "She herself was a consistent example of that honesty and ethics," he said.

"You tend to think of science professors as people in an ivory tower, but this was not Linda. She had a busy and interesting life," said Joseph Topping, a Towson chemistry professor. "She was also the kind of person who would swing her chair around, start talking and make you feel like the most important person in the world."

In 1991, as part of the Baltimore region's observation of National Chemistry Week, she put on a demonstration at the Maryland Science Center explaining what makes wintergreen candies glow in the dark when chewed.

Dr. Sweeting said the light originates in wintergreen candy's sugar molecules.

"Wintergreen is the brightest of all," she said. "Spearmint is not bad; but none of the transparent candies work at all." That's because they - like regular Life Savers - are made from glassy sugars, "which don't have the same properties," she said in a 1991 Evening Sun interview.

"I think chemists in general, and the American Chemical Society in particular, are concerned that people react to the word `chemistry' and `chemical' with fear and trembling," she said. "They are really unaware that they themselves are made of chemicals and ... that chemicals give them the energy to walk down the street."

Colleagues said she was one of the few scientists in the world to have made triboluminescence a focus of research.

Dr. Sweeting told the Evening Sun that she became interested in triboluminescence in graduate school at UCLA, while working in the dark with a substance she was told was prone to decompose if exposed to light.

"I was transferring the solid into the bottle, and it was creating blue flashes," Dr. Sweeting recalled in the 1991 interview. "When I saw this, I was half expecting it to explode. It really scared me." In researching the phenomenon later, she found it had been noted and described as early as the 1600s by Sir Francis Bacon.

Dr. Sweeting was also an expert in nuclear magnetic resonance, which is used in medical diagnostics, and developed Towson's chemistry course for nonscientists.

"She worked a lot with individual students in guiding their research," said Loretta Molitor, retired professor of science education and geology who lives in Cedaredge, Colo. "She showed the way to learn rather than to merely memorize."

Dr. Sweeting served as mentor to dozens of students performing research at Towson. She was active in the American Chemical Society and Association for Women in Science.

She enjoyed windsurfing in the Chesapeake Bay, flew her own aircraft and was a scuba diver.

Services were held yesterday.

Survivors include her partner, Charles Hummer; her mother, Mary "May" Sweeting of Toronto; a brother, David Sweeting of Ottawa; and two nephews.

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