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Eberhard Zwergel, beloved chemist and educator, dies at 80

Annual Halloween show and other demonstrations designed to spark interest in chemistry
eberhard zwergel
Beloved in the chemistry community and beyond, Eberhard Zwergel was renowned for his annual Halloween extravaganza complete with foaming pumpkins, colorful gas bubbles, exploding balloons, towers of fire, live music by the Northwestern Marching Band and more.

Eberhard E. Zwergel, a retired senior chemistry lecturer and demonstrator at Northwestern University, died Feb. 10. He was 80.

A native of Fulda, Germany, Zwergel was a dedicated educator in the department of chemistry for more than 30 years. He provided lively lecture demonstrations throughout the year for a wide range of chemistry classes as well as special events, such as Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day. A major goal of his was sparking interest in chemistry by using the beauty and power of the science itself.

Beloved in the chemistry community and beyond, Zwergel was renowned for his annual Halloween extravaganza complete with foaming pumpkins, colorful gas bubbles, exploding balloons, towers of fire, live music by the Northwestern Marching Band and more. To the thousands of students whom he taught across the years, he was simply Eberhard. He retired from Northwestern in January 2021.

“Eberhard and his demonstrations were memorable and a major highlight for freshmen taking chemistry courses at Northwestern,” said Teri Odom, Joan Husting Madden and William H. Madden Jr. Professor of Chemistry and chair of the chemistry department at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “His passion and joy for chemistry will long be remembered.”

Fred Northrup worked with Zwergel every summer for about a decade, with Zwergel doing lecture demonstrations for Northrup’s general chemistry classes.

“Eberhard’s demonstrations helped me show students the chemistry we were discussing in lecture in action,” said Northrup, professor of instruction and director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department. “He always did a July 4th show for me on the closest convenient class day to July 4. Students loved him. At least once, and maybe twice, he was voted most popular professor on campus even though he was not part of the faculty.” (Zwergel was a staff member.)

Zwergel was awarded the 2004 Weinberg College Community Building Award and is listed in College Magazine’s “Top 10 professors at Northwestern.”

His Halloween show — a fast-moving presentation of 20 or more dramatic experiments — debuted in 1996 and was last held in 2019. Northwestern students, faculty and staff as well as children from neighboring schools packed the Technological Institute lecture room each year for multiple shows. The event combined entertainment and education, showcasing Zwergel’s dedication to making science accessible.

“For years, Eberhard and I cooked pancakes for the class in an annual competition to demonstrate, in a visceral way, the acid-base chemistry of rising agents, such as dry acid/base baking powders, baking soda and whipped egg whites,” said Thomas O’Halloran, a member of the Northwestern chemistry faculty for 34 years who is now at Michigan State University. “Eberhard always won these throwdowns with ‘secret ingredients,’ but some of the most dramatic reactions in his opus were saved for the famous Halloween Lecture. Eberhard’s wily wit made it easy for him to recruit a band of sophomore and junior volunteers, enlisting their help for weeks in advance of Halloween to prepare demonstrations, weigh out reagents, inflate balloons with hydrogen and oxygen and make explosive concoctions.”

One of those volunteers was alumna Eva Ma ’01, a chemistry undergraduate student from 1997 to 2001 and member of the Alpha Chi Sigma chemistry fraternity. Zwergel, along with O’Halloran, was a faculty sponsor for the organization. Each October, Ma and other members assisted Zwergel in his preparations and performance.

“Several of us helped out during the show itself — showcasing the luminescent reactions in large globe-like flasks or setting methane soap bubbles on fire and also dancing along with ‘The Time Warp’ from the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’” said Ma, now an assistant teaching professor of biology at the University of Washington Tacoma. “We really had a lot of fun during those Halloween shows.”

Zwergel wasn’t concerned with teaching chemical equations during the Halloween event. “People don’t need to know the formulas,” Zwergel once said. “Just sit back and enjoy, because science at work can be beautiful and exciting.”

Eberhard was bigger than life. He came to every lecture with demos and a style that electrified the audience,” said Chad Mirkin, the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in Weinberg College. “He was a fan favorite among the undergrads and revered by most. The faculty were equally impressed. Eberhard was a great friend to all and will be missed by all.”