New Search

Karl A. Folkers

Karl Folkers

CHF Collections

  • Born: September 1, 1906
  • Died: December 9, 1997

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0150
Interview Date: July 6, 1990
Location: Sunapee, New Hampshire
Interviewer: Leon B. Gortler
No. of pages: 72
Sponsor: Merck & Company, Inc.
Merck & Company, Inc.

  Abstract of Interview

In this interview, Karl Folkers first talks about his family and his early exposure to science. He then describes some of his experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, and as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. This is followed by a long discussion of his years at Merck, and includes his research on vitamins, particularly vitamin B12, his work on penicillin, the structure of research at Merck, and comments on various co-workers and administrators. Special attention is paid to coenzyme Q10, a project begun at Merck and continued for the last thirty-seven years. After Merck, Folkers talks about his five-year tenure as president of the Stanford Research Institute, and then about his current research at the University of Texas, including his work on vitamin B6 and the carpal tunnel syndrome, and his work on peptide hormones.


1928 B.S. University of Illinois
1931 Ph.D. University of Wisconsin
1931 Squibb & Lilly Research Postdoctoral Fellow Yale University

  Professional Experience

Merck & Co., Inc.

1934 - 1938 Research Chemist

Merck & Co., Inc.

1938 - 1945 Assistant Director of Research

Merck & Co., Inc.

1945 - 1951 Director, Organic and Biomedical Research Department

Merck & Co., Inc.

1951 - 1953 Associate Director, Research and Development Division

Merck & Co., Inc.

1953 - 1956 Director, Organic and Biological Chemical Research

Merck & Co., Inc.

1956 - 1962 Executive Director, Fundamental Research

Merck & Co., Inc.

1962 - 1963 Vice President for Exploratory Research

American Chemical Society

1962 - 1962 President

Stanford Research Institute

1963 - 1968 President and CEO

University of Texas at Austin

1968 - 1997 Ashbel Smith Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Institute of Biomedical Research

Karl Folkers Foundation for Biomedical and Clinical Research

1990 - 1997 President


1940 Mead Johnson & Company Award (Co-recipient)
1941 Award in Pure Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1948 Elected, National Academy of Sciences
1948 Presidential Certificate of Merit (Harry S. Truman)
1949 Mead Johnson & Company Award (Co-recipient)
1951 Board of Director's Scientific Award, Merck & Co., Inc.
1959 Spencer Award, American Chemical Society, Kansas City Section
1960 Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)
1962 D.Sc., Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science
1967 Nichols Medal, American Chemical Society, New York Section
1969 D.Sc., University of Uppsala
1969 D.Sc., University of Wisconsin
1969 Van Meter Prize, American Thyroid Association (Co-recipient)
1972 Robert A. Welch International Award and Medal
1973 D.Sc., University of Illinois
1974 APhA Research Achievement Award, Academy of Pharmaceutical Science
1977 Alexander von Humbolt-Stiftung Award
1980 Award by Austin Capital of the Age of Enlightment
1986 Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society
1986 Illinois Alumni Achievement Award, University of Illinois
1989 Doctorate in Medicine, University of Bologna
1990 President's National Medal of Science (George H. W. Bush)
1994 Achievement Award in Preventive Medicine, American College for Advancement in Medicine

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family, Early Education, Chemistry 1

Father's background, education, occupation. Parents' attitude toward Karl going to college. Mother's background. Interest in science: Reading. High school chemistry. Theme on chemistry written in high school. Chemical demonstrations at nearby university. Home laboratory.

University of Illinois 5

Decision to go to college and to the University of Illinois. Jobs at the University: Dishwasher, waiter, librarian. Non-science courses: Economics, ROTC, foreign languages. The chemistry department: Roger Adams, Speed Marvel. Jack Johnson. Decision to go to Wisconsin. Adams and Marvel support of Illinois graduates. Henry Gilman. Advice from Sally Sparks and Speed Marvel.

Graduate School: University of Wisconsin 10

Choosing a mentor: Interviews with McElvain and Adkins. Research with Adkins: High pressure hydrogenation. Ralph Connor. Discovering the copper chromite catalyst. Art Cope. Adkin's attitutde toward biochemistry. Different attitude of Treat Johnson. The search for biologically active compounds. Financial support at Wisconsin. Teaching at Wisconsin.

Postdoctoral Research: Yale, Treat B. Johnson 14

Late application to James Conant at Harvard, who became President of Harvard. Application to Treat B. Johnson. Requirement for personal essay. T. B. Johnson: Personality, chemistry, influence. Offer from Jack Johnson to go to Cornell. Marriage to Selma Johnson, 1932. Children and grandchildren.

Merck 16

Looking for an industrial job. Offers from General Electric and from George Perkins of Merck. Negotiating salary with Randolph Major. Comments of Treat Johnson on two offers. Choosing Merck. First assignments at Merck: Horse sedative, Erythrina seeds, curare. Work on Erythrina alkaloids. Other chemists in pure research: Fernholz, Walti, Stiller. Microanalysis laboratory: Douglas Hayman. Klaus Unna. Development research: William Engels.

Merck: Vitamins 21

Randolph Major's foresight. John Keresztesy. Robert Williams: Thiamine (Vitamin B1). Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6). Stan Harris. Hiring people from Rockefeller. The structure of pyridoxine: UV spectroscopy; microanalysis; molecular formula; color reactions; total synthesis. Competition with Richard Kuhn on structure of B6. Adolph Butenandt. Testing for biological activity: Gladys and Oliver Emerson. Pantothenic acid: Roger Williams. Biotin: Vincent du Vigneaud. Desulfurization: Ralph Mozingo.

Structure of Penicillin 26

Molecular formula. Difference with physical chemists over basicity. The beta-lactam structure. Building up specialties: Microchemistry, microanalysis, hydrogenation. Desulfurization of penicillin. Chemists and research assistants working on biotin. Dorothea Heyl: First woman chemist Folkers hired. Getting involved in the penicillin project. Publication of the penicillin research. Synthesis of penicillin.

Merck, Research 30

Randolph Major: Contributions to Merck. Consultants. Cortisone. Streptomycin: Structure. Changing administrative structure: Response to changing research. Boyd Woodruff. Pure research at Merck in the early 1930s: "Blue Sky" research versus profit-oriented research. Vitamin research. Vitamin therapy.

Vitamin B12 34

Decision to use chromatography. Randolph West, clinician. Supply of liver residue from Henry Dakin. Excitement caused by first sample sent to Dr. West. Competitors in the search for the anti-pernicious anemia factor. Discovering Mary Shorb's assay for a factor in liver. Discovering B12 in a fermentation broth. Searching for a unique physical property for B12: Discovery and utilization of the red color. Excitement at the isolation of B12. Discovery that B12 was the animal growth factor. Threat to stop B12 project.

Merck: Research and Administration 40

Per Frolich. Randolph Major. Providing information to Glaxo on B12. Merger with Sharp & Dohme. James Sprague. Presidents of Merck: James Kerrigan, George Merck. Antibiotics. Vitamins: Lipoic acid, biotin. Mevalonic acid. Using new instruments to solve problems. Arthur Wagner. Writing research papers. Interview for presidency of MSDRL with Vannevar Bush. Response to Tishler heading MSDRL. Adding cyanide to B12 residues.

Coenzyme Q 49

Sample from David Green. Importance. Naming of coenzyme Q10. Goal of Co-Q research. Merck abandons Co-Q.

Presidency of American Chemical Society 51

Leaving Merck; Stanford Research Institute 52

Choice to leave Merck. Temptations of California. Positions at SRI. Accomplishments. Drawbacks.

University of Texas 53

Initial overture from Texas (1963). Negotiating position at Texas (1968). Formation of The Institute for Biomedical Research: Funding. Developing assay for EGOT. Proving a B6 deficiency for the carpal tunnel syndrome.

Peptide Hormones 56

Origin of work. Cy Bowers. Andrew Schally. Receiving first hormone samples. Solving the structure problem. LHRH inhibitors. Inhibitors for tumor growth factors.

Miscellaneous 59

Clinical co-workers. Approach to designing new drugs. Faithfulness in research. Co-Q10. Rewards. Presidential Medal: Recognition by Japanese "scientific sons." Difficulty in achieving research success: B6 and the carpal tunnel syndrome. New heart pump monitor. Karl Folkers Foundation for Biomedical and Clinical Research.

Notes 65

Index 68

  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.

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.