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John E. Franz

  • Born: December 21, 1929, Springfield, Illinois

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0119
Interview Date: November 29, 1994
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 59
Sponsor: Society of Chemical Industry
Society of Chemical Industry

  Abstract of Interview

John E. Franz begins this interview by discussing his early life in Springfield, Illinois, during the Depression. He then describes his undergraduate work at the University of Illinois and his contacts there with Roger Adams, Elliott Alexander, Virginia Bartow, Reynold Fuson, and Carl Marvel. Moving on to his graduate work at the University of Minnesota, Franz contrasts his studies there in physical organic chemistry with his training in practical synthetic organic chemistry at Illinois. Next, Franz discusses choosing to work at the Monsanto Company, rather than DuPont. After describing his first projects, Franz recalls his transfer from the organic chemicals division to the agricultural division, where he worked on synthetic herbicides. This work led to Franz's discovery of glyphosate, a natural plant growth inhibitor that forms the active ingredient in Roundup, an environmentally friendly herbicide that has become one of the most widely used herbicides in the world. He describes the aftereffects of his discovery—the reactions of Monsanto and other companies, and the steps involved in commercial production of Roundup. Franz then examines his later work to understand amine and phosphine compounds as well as plant growth inhibitors. Discussing herbicides in light of current environmental and governmental regulations, he compares Roundup with the more potent herbicides favored by the industry today. Finally, Franz discusses his forthcoming book on the history of glyphosate, his final years at Monsanto, and his retirement.

  Education

1951 B.S. University of Illinois
1955 Ph.D., Organic Chemistry, University of Minnesota

  Professional Experience

Monsanto Chemical Company

1955 - 1959 Research Chemist, Organic Chemicals Division

Monsanto Chemical Company

1959 - 1962 Group Leader, Organic Chemicals Division

Monsanto Chemical Company

1962 - 1967 Science Fellow, Organic Chemicals Division

Monsanto Chemical Company

1967 - 1975 Science Fellow, Agricultural Products Division

Monsanto Chemical Company

1975 - 1980 Senior Science Fellow, Agricultural Products Division

Monsanto Chemical Company

1980 - 1994 Distinguished Science Fellow, Agricultural Products Division

  Honors

1977 IR-100 Award, Industrial Research magazine
1981 J. F. Queeny Award, Monsanto Company
1985 Achievement Award, Industrial Research Institute
1986 Inventor of the Year Award, St. Louis Metropolitan Bar
1987 National Medal of Technology Presidential Award
1988 Outstanding Achievement Award, University of Minnesota
1988 Missouri Award, Department of Economic Development
1989 Carothers Award, American Chemical Society, Delaware Section
1990 Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood and Early Education 1

Childhood and early schooling in Springfield, Illinois. Early interest in science; dairy-related experiments. Chemistry in junior college.

Undergraduate and Graduate Schooling 5

Contacts with Roger Adams, Elliott Alexander, Virginia Bartow, Reynold Fuson, and Carl Marvel at the University of Illinois. Graduate work at the University of Minnesota; contacts with Stuart W. Fenton, Ed Koelsch, and William E. Parham. Decision to work at Monsanto.

Early Career at Monsanto 11

Work on various projects—carbonium ions, maleic anhydride chemistry, plasticizers, aspirin, polymers, and oxidation reactions. Research on sulfonyl ureas in treating diabetes. Monsanto's technical and management ladders, patent process, and attitude toward publications.

Transfer to Monsanto's Agricultural Division 18

A. John Speziale. Work on plant growth regulators, especially hormones. Study of plant physiology. Division culture and communication. How ideas develop.

Discovery of Glyphosate 22

Monsanto's early work in phosphonic acids; Franz's own work with biological plant-growth metabolizers, amines, and phosphinic acids. Discovery and development of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Follow-up work on glyphosate analogs and similar compounds. Traits necessary for success in research.

Glyphosate Aftermath 28

Effect of the discovery of glyphosate on Franz's career. Comparison of Roundup to more potent herbicides.

Franz's Latter Career at Monsanto 35

Research on plant inhibitors and environmentally friendly herbicides. Views on education of today's scientists. Trends in chemical company leadership—openness to research, nurture of creativity, and reception of new discoveries. Administrative work as final part of career. Retirement.

Notes 53

Index 54

  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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