New Search

William von Eggers Doering

  • Born: June 22, 1917, Fort Worth, Texas
  • Died: January 3, 2011

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0085
Interview Dates: November 9, 1990 and May 29, 1991
Locations: Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Harvard University, Cambridge, Pennsylvania
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 100
Minutes: 450

  Abstract of Interview

William von Eggers Doering begins these interviews with a discussion of his early life and family background. His parents were both musicians, and met while they were both studying music in Leipzig. When World War I broke out, they moved to the United States, and his father became a vital statistician. His father eventually got a job teaching at Harvard University's School of Public Health, and the family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Doering was influenced by his teachers during his early education to pursue science. After graduating from high school, Doering attended Harvard University, where he was inspired to major in chemistry. At Harvard, he took courses with Arthur Lamb, Louis Fieser, Elmer Kohler, and Paul Bartlett. Kohler encouraged Doering to continue on to graduate school, so he earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Harvard in 1943. During his years as a graduate student, he did some research with Louis Fieser on new explosives, including trinitrobenzylnitrate, as well as anti-mustard gas work with Eric Ball. After he completed his graduate work, he joined Robert B. Woodward's team at Harvard, who was attempting to synthesize quinine. Less than a year later, Doering took an instructorship at Columbia University, but continued with the quinine project in his free time. Doering outlines his relationship with Woodward, the difficulties of the quinine work, and the impact of that research on his career. Doering spent nine years at Columbia before moving on to Yale University in 1952. While at Columbia, he helped to establish the Hickrill Chemical Research Foundation, which focused on postdoctoral research. It was there that Doering did most of his work on carbene. In the 1960s, he was asked to join the Board of Leo Szilard's new organization, Council for a Livable World. For over fifteen years, Doering was active in lobbying for this organization. Throughout his career, Doering was also a consultant for various companies. At Yale, Doering became Director of the Division of Sciences, and began to realize that administrative duties were taking too much time from his research. He planned to go to the University of Karlsruhe, but Woodward offered him a position at Harvard. Doering concludes the interviews with a discussion of his graduate students, his colleagues, and his interactions with Fudau University in China.


1938 B.S., Chemistry, Harvard University
1943 Ph.D., Organic Chemistry, Harvard University

  Professional Experience

Columbia University

1943 - 1945 Instructor

Columbia University

1945 - 1948 Assistant Professor

Columbia University

1947 - 1969 Director of Research, Hickrill Chemical Research Foundation

Columbia University

1948 - 1952 Associate Professor

Yale University

1952 - 1956 Professor

Yale University

1956 - 1967 Whitehead Professor

Yale University

1962 - 1965 Director of the Division of Sciences

Council for a Livable World

1962 - 1973 Chairman, Board of Directors

Council for a Livable World

1973 - 1978 President

Harvard University

1967 - 1968 Professor

Harvard University

1968 - 1986 Mallinckrodt Professor of Organic Chemistry

Harvard University

1986 - Present

Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry Emeritus


1945 John Scott Medal, City of Philadelphia
1953 Pure Chemistry Award, American Chemical Society
1962 A. W. Hofmann Medal, Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker
1966 Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1967 William C. DeVane Medal, Yale University
1970 Theodore Williams Richards Medal, American Chemical Society, Northeastern Section
1973 Humboldt Senior Fellowship, Federal Republic of Germany
1974 D.Sc., honorary, Texas Christian University
1980 Honorary Professorship, Fudau University, Shanghai
1987 D.Nat.Sci., honoris causa, University of Karlsruhe
1989 James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society, Northeastern Section
1990 Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family Background and Early Education 1

Father's career as vital statistician. Family life. School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Influence of early teachers. Impact of Depression.

College Education 7

Decision to attend Harvard University. Influence of professors, including Louis Fieser and Elmer Kohler. Chemistry department at Harvard. Decision to continue for graduate degree. Studying with Carl Noller and Sir Reginald Linstead. Anti-mustard gas research. Explosives work with Fieser.

Quinine research 25

Working with R.B. Woodward. Accepting position at Columbia University. Working on quinine during breaks. Difficulties with homomeroquinene samples. Relationship with Polaroid. Media coverage.

Teaching at Columbia University 37

Teaching Naval cadets. Relationship with graduate students. Relationship with Louis Plack Hammett. First graduate student. Establishment of Hickrill Chemical Research Foundation. "No mechanism" reaction and the Cope rearrangement. Tropolone work. Carbene research.

Position at Yale University 60

Decision to leave Columbia. Chemistry department. Influence of colleagues.

Joining Council for a Livable World 64

Invitation from Leo Szilard. Supporting political candidates opposed to use of nuclear weapons. Experience in Washington, D.C. Involvement of other scientists. Fundraising efforts.

Consulting Experience 69

Work for Humble Oil, Esso, Proctor & Gamble. Frustrations with consulting. Polyurethane research at Carwin Company.

Move to Harvard University 73

Decision to leave Yale. Influence of Woodward. Research contradicting Woodward-Hoffmann rules. Comparison of Yale and Harvard.

Conclusion 79

Postdocs. Changes in physical chemistry. Education of Chinese chemists.

Notes 87

Index 90

  About the Interviewers

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.

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.