New Search

Ronald C. Breslow

Ronald C. Breslow

Ronald Breslow and Edith Roberts in Barbados to attend a Chemical Conference. Courtesy of John D. Roberts, CHF Collections

  • Born: March 14, 1931, Rahway, New Jersey

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0181
Interview Dates: March 19, 1999 and April 9, 1999
Locations: Columbia University, New York, New York; and New York, New York
Interviewer: Leon B. Gortler
No. of pages: 96
Minutes: 275

  Abstract of Interview

Ronald Breslow begins the interview with a discussion of his family life and background. He grew up in Rahway, New Jersey, the son of a physician. Max Tishler, a family friend, helped to pique Breslow's interest in chemistry. In high school, Breslow entered the Westinghouse Science Contest, which enabled him to meet like-minded teenagers. Breslow entered Harvard University, graduating with his A.B. in chemistry in 1952. He discusses chemistry courses taught by Louis Fieser and Paul Bartlett, and his research with Gilbert Stork on the structure of cedrene. Breslow received a master's degree in medical science from Harvard in 1953, and he discusses the uniqueness of the program. He continued his graduate studies with R. B. Woodward, earning his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1955 for his work on magnamycin. He discusses his graduate school colleagues and his post-doc with Alexander Todd. In 1956, Breslow joined the faculty of Columbia University, where he has worked on a variety of subjects, including thiamine, cyclopropenyl cation, cyclodextrins, and electron transfer. He discusses his colleagues, his collaborations, and his cancer research. Breslow further addresses changes at Columbia, Columbia's chemistry department, and his involvement in the American Chemical Society. He concludes with a discussion of his consulting activities and reflections on his family and career.


1952 A.B., Chemistry, Harvard University
1953 M.A., Medical Sciences, Harvard University
1955 Ph.D., Chemistry, Harvard University

  Professional Experience

Cambridge University

1955 - 1956 National Research Council Fellow

Columbia University

1956 - 1959 Instructor, Department of Chemistry

Columbia University

1959 - 1962 Associate Professor of Chemistry

Columbia University

1962 - 1967 Professor of Chemistry

Columbia University

1967 - Present Samuel Latham Mitchell Professor of Chemistry

Columbia University

1992 - Present University Professor


1966 Award in Pure Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1966 Fresenius Award, Phi Lambda Upsilon
1969 Baekeland Medal, American Chemical Society
1969 Mark van Doren Medal, Columbia University
1972 Centenary Medal, British Chemical Society
1974 Harrison Howe Award, Rochester Section, American Chemical Society
1977 Remsen Prize, Maryland Section, American Chemical Society
1978 Roussel Prize in Steroids, Roussel-UCLAF, France
1980 James Flack Norris Prize in Physical Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1984 T. W. Richards Medal, Northeast Section, American Chemical Society
1987 Arthur C. Cope Award, American Chemical Society
1988 Kenner Award, University of Liverpool
1989 Nichols Medal, New York Section, American Chemical Society
1989 Award in Chemical Sciences, National Academy of Sciences
1990 Allan Day Award, Philadelphia Organic Chemists Club
1990 Paracelsus Award and Medal, Swiss Chemical Society
1991 National Medal of Science
1999 Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society

Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family Background and Education 1

Growing up in Rahway. Father's medical practice. Max Tishler. Growing interest in chemistry. Support of mother. Relationship with sister. Westinghouse Science Contest.

College Years 4

Decision to attend Harvard. Louis Fieser. Chemistry courses. Paul Bartlett. Research with Gilbert Stork. Work on structure of cedrene. Entering graduate studies in medical science. Decision to get Ph.D. in chemistry. Research with R.B. Woodward. Structure elucidation of magnamycin. Edwin Ullman. Colleagues. Andrew Kende. Ed Wasserman. Post-doc with Alexander Todd. DNA research.

Family 12

Meeting wife (Esther). Wife's work on base pairing. Children.

Chemical Research 15

Job offer from Columbia. Research on thiamine. Physical organic work. Cyclopropenyl anion. Collaborations. Free radical catalysis. Cyclodextrins. Cytochrome P450. Hydrophobicity. Electron transfer. Work with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Institute. Collaboration with National Cancer Institute.

Columbia University 49

Controversy over Barnard College. Role in bringing William McGill to Columbia. Changing emphasis to undergraduates. Chairmanship of chemistry department. Improving facilities. Colleagues. Importance of teaching. Publishing.

American Chemical Society 57

Becoming president. Chemistry Today and Tomorrow. Importance of public understanding.

Conclusion 60

Consulting. DuPont. Schering-Plough. Synvar. General Motors. Board of The Rockefeller University. Future of chemical sciences. Hobbies. National Medal of Science. Reflections on research. Relationship with students. Family. Future of physical organic chemistry.

Notes 79

Index 82

  About the Interviewers

Leon B. Gortler

Leon Gortler is a professor of chemistry at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He holds A.B. and M.S. degrees from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Harvard University where he worked with Paul Bartlett. He has long been interested in the history of chemistry, in particular the development of physical organic chemistry, and has conducted over fifty oral and videotaped interviews with major American chemists.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@

Annual Report

Annual Report
Take a look back at a year of preservation, research, and outreach in CHF’s annual report to supporters.

Support CHF

Help us preserve and share the history of chemistry and related sciences. Make a tax-deductible tax-deductible gift online.