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Herbert C. Brown

  • Born: May 22, 1912, London, England
  • Died: December 19, 2004, Lafayette, Indiana

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0117
Interview Date: November 11, 1994
Location: Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 51
Minutes: 149
Sponsor: Society of Chemical Industry
Society of Chemical Industry

  Abstract of Interview

Herbert C. Brown begins this interview by describing his high school education and the death of his father, which forced him to follow a practical path in seeking work and eventually a college education. Brown discusses his coursework and studies at Crane Junior College, where he became fascinated by chemistry and its history. When Crane closed down, Brown was among the students invited to work in Nicholas D. Cheronis' Synthetical Laboratories, where he earned enough money to enroll in a University of Chicago correspondence course on qualitative analysis. He supplemented his education by working with Fales's Quantitative Analysis. Brown continues the interview by recalling the details of his studies and lab work at Wright Junior College and the University of Chicago. He also describes his relationships with his wife, Sarah Baylen, his mentors, Juliuis Stieglitz and Morris Kharasch, who influenced the direction of his inorganic research and the path of this career, and Neil Gordon, who offered Brown a position at Wayne State University and supported his research efforts there. Brown recalls the course of his career decisions and research at Chicago, Wayne State, and later Purdue University. He includes details of studies on steric effects, boranes, and borohydride synthesis. In the second part of the interview, Brown discusses his WWII work for the National Defense Research Committee, which included research on the volatile compounds of uranium, uranium borohydride production and testing, sodium trimethoxyborohydride production, and sodium borohydride development. He concludes the interview with an overview of his post-war research at Purdue, which focused on reduction studies comparing sodium borohydride and lithium aluminum hydride, hydroboration discovery, explorations into organoborane chemistry, and the development of a general asymmetric synthesis program.


1933 Crane Junior College, Chicago (School Closed 1933)
1935 Assoc. Sci. Wright Junior College, Chicago
1936 B.S. University of Chicago
1938 Ph.D., Inorganic Chemistry, University of Chicago

  Professional Experience

University of Chicago

1938 - 1939 Eli Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow

University of Chicago

1939 - 1943 Instructor of Chemistry

University of Chicago

1941 - 1943 Instructor and Research Investigator

Wayne State University

1943 - 1946 Assistant Professor

Wayne State University

1946 - 1947 Associate Professor

Purdue University

1947 - 1959 Professor of Chemistry

Purdue University

1959 - 1960 Wetherill Professor of Chemistry

Purdue University

1960 - 1978 Wetherill Research Professor of Chemistry

Purdue University

1978 - present Emeritus Wetherill Research Professor of Chemistry


1951 Sigma Xi Award, Purdue Section of Sigma Xi
1953 Harrison Howe Award, Rochester Section of the American Chemical Society
1955 Centenary Lectureship and Medal, The Chemical Society, London, England
1957 Elected to National Academy of Science
1959 William H. Nichols Medal, New York Section, American Chemical Society
1960 Award for Creative Research in Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1960 S.O.C.M.A. Medal, Society of Organic Chemistry Manufacturing Association
1961 Phi Lambda Upsilon Key for Honorary Membership, Phi Lambda Upsilon
1962 Honorary Member, Phi Lambda Upsilon
1962 Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1968 Linus Pauling Medal, Oregon and Puget Sound Sections, American Chemical Society
1968 Doctor of Science, University of Chicago
1969 National Medal of Science
1971 Roger Adams Medal, Organic Division, American Chemical Society
1972 Phi Beta Kappa
1973 Charles Frederick Chandler Medal, Department of Chemistry, Columbia University
1974 Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists
1975 Madison Marshall Award
1976 City College of New York Chemistry Alumni Award and Medal for Scientific Achievement
1977 Elected Fellow, Indian National Science Academy
1977 Honorary Fellow, Royal Society of Chemistry
1978 C. K. Ingold Lecture and Medal, The Chemical Society, London
1978 Elliot Cresson Medal, The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia
1979 The Nobel Award and Medal, The Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, Sweden
1980 Medal of Culture, Ministry of Education, Taiwan, ROC
1980 Nobel Hall of Science, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
1980 Honorary Member, Chinese Chemical Society
1980 Honorary Old Master, Purdue University
1980 Doctor of Science, Wayne State University
1980 Doctor of Science, Lebanon Valley College
1980 Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Long Island University
1980 Doctor Philosophiae honoris causa, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
1980 Grado Academico Honorifico de Doctor Scientiae honoris causa, Pontificia
1981 Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society
1981 Doctor of Science, Purdue University
1981 Doctor in Scientiae honoris causa, University of Wales
1982 Perkin Medal, American Section, Society of Chemical Industry
1982 Elected Honorary Member, The Indiana Academy
1982 Honorary Member, Pharmaceutical Society of Japan
1982 Honorary Member, Chemical Society of Japan
1982 Corresponding Member, Academy of Arts and Sciences of Puerto Rico
1982 Doctor of Science, Butler University
1982 Docteur honoris causa, Université de Paris-Sud
1983 A. J. Beckman Memorial Medal, Colorado School of Mines
1983 Honorary Member, Gold Key National Honor Society
1985 A.I.C. Gold Medal, American Institute of Chemists
1985 Doctor of Science, Ball State University
1986 Sixtieth Anniversary Commemorative Medal, Jewish Academy of Arts and Sciences
1986 Sesquicentennial Commemorative Medal, National Library of Medicine
1987 National Academy of Sciences Award and Medal in Chemical Sciences, National Academy of Sciences
1987 G. M. Kosolapoff Award and Medal, Auburn Section, American Chemical Society
1987 Dedication of the H. C. Brown Laboratories of Chemistry
1989 Medal of the Government of Japan: Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star Emperor, Government of Japan
1990 Oesper Award, Cincinnati Section, American Chemical Society
1991 Honorary Member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of the Russian Federal Republic
1991 Corresponding Member, Academia Mexicana de la Investigation Cientifica
1994 Honorary Scholar, University of Wales, Swansea, Wales
1994 Honorary Professor, Laboratory of Organometallic Chemistry, Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences
1995 University Medal of Highest Honor, Kyung Hee University, Seoul, Korea
1995 Distinguished Scholar Award, Indiana Academy of Science
1996 Visitante Distinguido, BUSA V-MEX, Mexico
1996 Visitante Distinguido, La Universidad de Guanajuato, Mexico

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Background and Education 1

High school education and influence of father's death. Crane Junior College and falling in love with chemistry. Interest in history of chemistry. Work in Nicholas D. Cheronis' laboratories, University of Chicago correspondence course on qualitative analysis, and work with Fales's Quantitative Analysis. Sarah Baylen. Coursework and experimenting at Wright Junior College. Earning competitive scholarship to the University of Chicago.

University of Chicago 5

Coursework and accelerated schedule. Laboratory experiences. Stieglitz's influence in pursuing doctoral studies and postponing marriage plans. Stieglitz's background, general influence, and encouragement in pursuit of inorganic studies. Place of inorganic studies at that time. Postdoc with Morris Kharasch. Tenure structure at the university and decision to leave. Kharasch's help in securing position at Wayne State University. Neil Gordon.

Wayne State University 11

Appointment and reduced teaching load arrangements. Lab accomodations and beginning of program on steric effects. Meeting Henry Hass and subsequent invitation to lecture at Purdue. Offer of position as Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and decision to accept.

Purdue University 14

Reception from faculty. Boranes book and rationale behind research program. Example of asymmetric synthesis: industrial versus academic research. Discussion of early interest in hydrides of boron; work with Norman Davidson; and work with Schlesinger synthesizing aluminum, berylium, and lithium borohydrides.

Work for National Defense Research Committee 19

Research in volatile compounds of uranium. Creation of uranium borohydride and need for large-scale production and testing. Production of sodium trimethoxyborohydride. Sodium borohydride work for Army Signal Corps. Attitude toward patents and licensing.

Post-War Research at Purdue University 24

Reduction studies comparing sodium borohydride and lithium aluminum hydride. Discovery of hydroboration. Reaction of scientific community. Exploration of organoborane chemistry. General asymmetric synthesis program.

Notes 35

Index 37

  About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning is professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he was a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and has presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was the foundation’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. He is currently a visiting research scientist and CESAR Fellow at Lehigh University. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.

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