Tribute to a Visionary:
The Late Congressman Silvio O. Conte
The Late Congressman
Silvio O. Conte
"I am inclined to think that the development of polymerization is perhaps the biggest thing chemistry has done, where it has had the biggest effect on everyday life. The world would be a totally different place without artificial fibers, plastics, elastomers, etc. Even in the field of electronics, what would you do without insulation? And there you come back to polymers again."
Alexander Todd, President
Royal Society of London (1980)
Back in 1958, when Silvio Conte was first elected to Congress, polymer science and engineering was a young field, little recognized by the public and pursued by a relative handful of academic and industrial investigators. But as Congressman Conte's career advanced and his stature grew, the same could be said of polymers, and today, polymeric materials play a prominent role in everyday life. Although Silvio Conte was not trained as a scientist or engineer, he not only anticipated the impact of polymers, he did much to foster the field's growth, especially at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Congressman Conte's involvement can be dated back to the days when Professor Richard Stein initiated polymer research at the Amherst campus. He watched and aided the creation of the Polymer Research Institute, then of the PSE program, and eventually of the PSE Department. On many occasions he met with such faculty as Frank Karasz, Roger Porter, and Bill MacKnight to see what role Congress might take in advancing the United State’s leading position in this obviously important technological area. He watched with considerable pride as the polymer discoveries in his rural district were applauded not just in the United States but around the world.
Eventually, in 1984, Congressman Conte met with faculty and administrators from UMass Amherst to discuss a proposal for the construction of a $40-million polymer research center. At that time many in Congress were examining America's dangerous reliance on the Soviet Union and South Africa for minerals in our strategic stockpile.
Researchers in Amherst were suggesting that synthetic polymers might be able to replace some of these strategic materials. Congressman Conte enjoyed discussing how he had listened to the professors from Amherst and was persuaded, as he said, "to put thirty years in the Congress and a position as ranking member of the Appropriations Committee on the line—and call in a lot of chits from my colleagues."
In 1985, Congressman Conte sponsored a provision to allocate the first $10 million for construction of a National Center for Polymer Research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Subsequently, he was able to get $10 million more. He was encouraged by the support and enthusiasm of business and industry, for example—the General Electric Company, with its plastics' division world headquarters in nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts—and the Monsanto Corporation with its chemical division in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Congressman Conte's efforts to create the first National Center for Polymer Research in Amherst were boosted by the state government's decision in 1985 to designate the University's polymer research effort as a regional "Center of Excellence".
Corrine Conte, Silvio's widow,
cutting the ribbon at the Center's
formal opening in March 1996.
But as important as strategic materials were to Silvio Conte, there was one concern that he held even higher—his love for the environment. As a practicing environmentalist, he was convinced that the researchers at UMass Amherst were on the right track in developing truly biodegradable plastics, encouraging recycling efforts, and inventing new environmentally safe processes for producing superstrong polymers.
Congressman Conte believed that a National Center for Polymer Research would have a tremendous potential for advancing polymer research, for strengthening the University of Massachusetts, and for improving the competitive posture of the state and region's businesses, as well as those throughout the country.
Congressman Conte predicted a day when researchers would travel to Amherst from around world, to participate in a great scientific and technological enterprise, and to make important discoveries.
That day is here now—and the Silvio O. Conte Polymer Research Center has become a worthy memorial.