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Donald J. Cram

Donald J. Cram

Courtesy of John D. Roberts, CHF Collections

  • Born: April 22, 1919, Chester, Vermont
  • Died: June 17, 2001, Palm Desert, California

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0079
Interview Date: January 14, 1981
Location: University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California
Interviewer: Leon B. Gortler
No. of pages: 61
Minutes: 143

  Abstract of Interview

In this interview Donald Cram talks briefly about his family and growing up in Vermont, Florida and New York, and this is followed by a description of his experiences at Rollins College and his start in the world of chemistry. Next he talks about his graduate work at the University of Nebraska with Norman Cromwell, the circumstances which led him to work at Merck during World War II, and his work at Merck and the chemists with whom he collaborated. He then talks at length about his doctoral work at Harvard, his research, his coursework, cumulative and foreign language exams, and his interaction with various members of the faculty. In 1947 he took a position at UCLA, and he describes much of his research through the early 1960s, Saul Winstein and his interactions with Winstein, and the changes that took place over thirty years in the UCLA chemistry department. The last part of the interview includes comments on the changes that have taken place in organic chemistry as a result of various factors, the advantages to the academic community of interactions with industry, the state and future of organic chemistry, and a description of his major research effort in the late 1970s, guest-host chemistry. It was this research that led to his sharing the Nobel Prize in 1987. In the final pages of the interview he talks about the influence of theory and theoretical papers on the development of chemistry.


1941 B.S., Chemistry, Rollins College
1942 M.S., Chemistry, University of Nebraska
1947 Ph.D., Chemistry, Harvard University

  Professional Experience

Merck & Co., Inc.

1942 - 1945 Research Chemist

University of California, Los Angeles

1947 - 1948 American Chemical Society Fellow/Instructor

University of California, Los Angeles

1948 - 1950 Assistant Professor

University of California, Los Angeles

1950 - 1956 Associate Professor

University of California, Los Angeles

1956 - 1990 Professor

University of California, Los Angeles

1985 - 1995 Saul Winstein Professor of Chemistry

University of California, Los Angeles

1988 - 1990 University Professor

University of California, Los Angeles

1990 - present Emeritus Professor

Upjohn Co.

1952 - 1987 Consultant

Union Carbide Corporation

1961 - 1981 Consultant

Eastman Kodak

1981 - 1991 Consultant

Technion Co.

1984 - 1992 Consultant

Inst. Guido Donegani, Milan

1988 - 1991 Consultant


1953 Western Sectional Award, American Chemical Society
1954 - 1955 Guggenheim Fellow
1961 Member, National Academy of Sciences
1965 Herbert Newby McCoy Award for Contributions to Chemistry
1965 Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1965 Award for Creative Work in Organic Chemistry, Society of Chemical Manufacturers Association
1967 Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1974 Arthur C. Cope Award for Distinguished Achievement in Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1974 California Scientist of the Year, Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry
1975 Herbert Newby McCoy Award for Contributions to Chemistry
1975 Rollins College Distinguished Alumni Award
1977 Honorary doctorate, Uppsala University, Sweden
1983 Honorary doctorate, University of Southern California
1985 Roger Adams Award, American Chemical Society
1985 Richard Tolman Medal, Southern California Section, American Chemical Society
1985 Willard Gibbs Award, Chicago Section, American Chemical Society
1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1988 Honorary doctorate, Rollins College
1989 Honorary doctorate, University of Nebraska
1989 Honorary doctorate, University of Western Ontario
1989 Glenn Seaborg Award
1991 Honorary doctorate, University of Sheffield
1992 National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood, Family, Education 1

Parents. Family values. Attending high school in Florida and New York. Extra-curricular interests.

Rollins College 2

Scholarship. Chemistry department. Faculty. Deciding to be a college professor. Deciding to be a chemist. Laboratory at Rollins. Introduction to self-learning. Extra-curricular activities. Summer job in New York City.

University of Nebraska 6

Applying to graduate schools. Work at Nebraska. Norman Cromwell. Research. Courses. Marriage. Chemical literature. Pilot training. Getting job at Merck. Other chemists at Merck. Projects.

Harvard 12

National Research Council Fellowship. Influence of Max Tishler. Louis Fieser as mentor. R. B. Woodward and Paul Bartlett. Cumulative exams. Thermodynamics. Work, skiing and courses with R. B. Woodward. Language exams. Research. Deciding when to finish Ph.D. ACS Fellowship. Post-doc with Jack Roberts. Recommendations.


Reading the chemical literature. Mold metabolites. Paracyclophanes. Phenonium ion rearrangements. Securing UCLA position. Rule of steric control of asymmetric induction (Cram's Rule). Concepts vs. empirical leads. Carbanion work. Saul Winstein. The chemistry department.

Changes in Organic Chemistry 29

Instrumentation. Physical organic chemistry. Effect of World War II. Effect of industrial development in the U.S.

The Future of Organic Chemistry 34

Synthesis. Bioorganic chemistry. Guest-Host chemistry. The integration of physical organic chemistry into mainstream organic chemistry. Stereospecificity. Compounds with holes.

Chemistry 41

Changes in approach: Publication of theoretical and speculative papers. Stimulation for new experimental work. Transition state theory. Woodward-Hoffmann rules.

Notes 46

Index 48

  About the Interviewer

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.

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