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Klaus Biemann

  • Born: November 2, 1926, Innsbruck, Austria

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0279
Interview Date: August 29, 2006
Location: Alton Bay, New Hampshire
Interviewer: Michael A. Grayson
No. of pages: 156
Minutes: 366
Sponsor: American Society for Mass Spectrometry
American Society for Mass Spectrometry

  Abstract of Interview

Klaus Biemann's oral history begins with a discussion of his youth near Vienna, Austria. As pharmacy was the family profession, Biemann chose to study it at the University of Innsbruck. He soon developed an interest in organic chemistry, however, and shifted his focus, becoming the only graduate student in this field at that time at the University of Innsbruck. Upon finishing his degree, Biemann then received an appointment at the University of Innsbruck, in the context of which he discusses his experiences as well as the post-World War II university environment. After a summer at MIT working with George Buchi, Biemann decided that the American academic system offered more opportunities than the European one and he subsequently accepted a post-doctorate position at MIT. After two years he was appointed to a faculty position in the analytical division by Arthur C. Cope, the Head of the chemistry department. Early in his tenure at MIT, Biemann's research interest shifted from natural product synthesis to the mass spectrometry of peptides and alkaloid structure. He explains how his early work expanded the perceived applications of early mass spectrometry. While talking about his research at MIT, Biemann reflects on the need to develop new experimental approaches to mass spectrometry, using IBM punch cards, writing computer code, etc. It was even difficult to get the structures of new alkaloids published, because of the novelty of the methodology used; he also discusses his funding from NIH, the first NIH Mass Spectrometry Facility grant, and support from NASA during the Apollo and Viking missions. After almost twenty years oftransforming the chemistry department, Cope left MIT and Biemann became the only analytic chemistry professor in the department. In 1958, Biemann began attending the annual meetings of the American Society of Mass Spectrometry, to which he and his research group contributed much over the ensuing forty years. Throughout the oral history Biemann discusses many topics relevant to the evolution of mass spectrometry in organic chemistry and biochemistry, including computerization, the environment, and space science.


1951 Ph.D., Organic Chemistry, University of Innsbruck

  Professional Experience

University of Innsbruck

1951 - 1955 Instructor

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1955 - 1957 Research Associate

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1957 - 1959 Instructor

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1959 - 1962 Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1962 - 1963 Associate Professor of Chemistry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1963 - 1996 Professor of Chemistry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1996 - present Professor of Chemistry (emeritus)


1954 Fulbright Fellowship
1962 Honorary Member, Belgian Chemical Society
1962 Stas Medal, Belgian Chemical Society
1966 Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1969 - 1977 Team Leader, Viking Molecular Analysis Team
1970 Tricentennial Medal, University of Innsbruck
1973 Powers Award, American Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences
1974 Outstanding Spectroscopist Award, Society for Applied Spectroscopy, New York Section
1977 Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
1977 Fritz Pregl Medal, Austrian Microchemical Society
1978 Newcomb Cleveland Prize (co-recipient), American Association for the Advancement of Science
1980 Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
1981 Honorary Member, Japanese Society for Medical Mass Spectrometry
1983 - 1984 Guggenheim Fellowship
1986 Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry, American Chemical Society
1989 Maurice F. Hasler Award, Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh
1991 Thomson Medal
1992 Pehr Edman Award for Outstanding Achievements in Mass Spectrometry
1993 Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences
1994 Oesper Award, University of Cincinnati
1995 Beckman Award, Association of Biomedical Resource Facilities
2001 Award in Analytical Chemistry, American Chemical Society
2007 The Benjamin Franklin Medal in Chemistry

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Youth and Education 1

Growing up near Vienna, Austria. Pharmacy as the family profession. University of Innsbruck Pharmacy degree. Growing interest in organic chemistry. Lone organic chemistry student. World War II. Appointment at University of Innsbruck. Post-war university experience.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology 6

Summer Program for foreign students. George Buchi. The American academic system. Post-doctoral fellowship. Post-war MIT. Chemistry department reforms under Arthur C. Cope. Analytical spectroscopy tools.

Mass Spectometry 12

Natural product synthesis. Research shifts to mass spectrometry of peptides. Conversion of peptides into polyamino alcohols. Logistics of running the mass spectrometer. Alkaloid structure determination. Expanding the early applications of mass spectrometry.

Academic Life 23

Book about mass spectrometry. Tenure. Difficulty publishing the structures of alkaloids determined by mass spectrometry. Using IBM punched cards. Writing computer code. National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health grants. First NIH Mass Spectrometry Facility grant.

Funding from NASA 28

Working with samples from space. Work with Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Building instruments for a Mars lander.

Analytical Chemistry 35

Arthur C. Cope leaving. Research Laboratory of Electronics. Only analytical chemistry faculty member. Importance of defining analyticalchemistry as a unique division.

History and Current State of Mass Spectrometry 40

Early mass spectrometry at universities. Current levels of computer automation. Environmental uses. Anti-doping. Tandem mass spectrometry.

American Society of Mass Spectometry 53

Began attending in 1958. Informal settings. Evolution of the meetings.

Scientific Innovation 57

Computers. Internet. Resolution. Nobel Prize for mass spectrometry. Advancement in space research.

Bibliography 72

Index 107

Appendix 112

  About the Interviewer

Michael A. Grayson

Michael A. Grayson is a member of the Mass Spectrometry Research Resource at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his B.S. degree in physics from St. Louis University in 1963 and his M.S. in physics from the University of Missouri at Rolla in 1965. He is the author of over 45 papers in the scientific literature. Before joining the Research Resource, he was a staff scientist at McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratory. While completing his undergraduate and graduate education, he worked at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, where he learned the art and science of mass spectrometry. Grayson is a member of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), and has served many different positions within that organization. He has served on the Board of Trustees of CHF and is currently a member of CHF's Heritage Council. He currently pursues his interest in the history of mass spectrometry by recording oral histories, assisting in the collection of papers, and researching the early history of the field.

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