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Vladimir Prelog

Vladimir Prelog

Courtesy of John D. Roberts, CHF Collections

  • Born: July 23, 1906, Sarajevo, Yugoslavia
  • Died: January 7, 1998

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0038
Interview Date: January 17, 1984
Location: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule), Zürich, Switzerland
Interviewer: Tonja A. Koeppel
No. of pages: 38
Minutes: 150

  Abstract of Interview

In this interview Vladimir Prelog discusses his long and distinguished career as an organic chemist. He begins by recalling his early education in Yugoslavia, doctoral studies in Prague, and first job as a chemist. He returned to Yugoslavia in 1935 to teach at the Technical Faculty of the University of Zagreb. The interview continues with Prelog describing how he finessed the problems of war and foreign occupation by emigrating to Switzerland, where he began a 35-year affiliation with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). The central portion of the interview contains Prelog's reflections on his research at the ETH. This includes work with the chemistry of natural products and with stereochemistry, and his creation (with Cahn and Ingold) of the CIP system for defining absolute configuration. The interview concludes with Prelog speaking about the growing complexity and expense of chemical research, his relationships with American chemists, his current research, and the future of chemistry and chemical education.


1929 D.Sc., Chemistry, Prague Institute of Technology

  Professional Experience

Laboratory of G. J. Dríza, Prague

1929 - 1935 Head

Technical Faculty of Zagreb University

1935 - 1941 Lecturer and Associate Professor

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1942 - 1950 Lecturer and Associate Professor

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1950 - 1976 Professor

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1957 - 1965 Head, Laboratory of Organic Chemistry


1946 Werner Medal and Prize, Swiss Chemical Society
1962 Stas Medal, Belgian Chemical Society
1962 Medal of Honor, Rice University
1965 Marcel Benoist Prize, Switzerland
1966 Hanus Medal, Czechoslovakian Chemical Society
1967 A.W. von Hofmann Memorial Medal, German Chemical Society
1968 Davy Medal, Royal Society of London
1969 Roger Adams Award, American Chemical Society
1974 Paul Karrer Award, University of Zürich
1975 Nobel Prize for Chemistry
1976 Paracelsus Medal
1977 Order of the Yugoslavian Star
1977 Order of the Rising Sun, Japan
1978 Emil Votocek Medal, Chemical-Technical University, Prague

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood 1

Witnesses political events in Yugoslavia. Education in Zagreb. Early interest in chemistry. Publishes chemistry paper at age of fifteen. Father's occupation. Influence of history.

Studies in Prague at the Institute of Technology 4

Early chemical engineering. Personal philosophy of chemistry. Finishes studies in short time. Dissertation. Natural products chemistry. Stereochemistry.

Industrial Research and Academic Career 7

Preparation of compounds not commercially available. Quinine research. University of Zagreb. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Swiss Chemical Society. Helvetica Chimica Acta.

Natural Products Research 12

European chemists who emigrated to the United States. Organ extract research. Alkaloid research. Adamantane research. Robert Woodward. Creation of the Woodward Institute in Basel.

Research into Stereochemistry 18

Initial involvement. Collaboration with Cahn and Ingold. The CIP system. Conformations. Key people in stereochemistry.

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology 23

Awarded Nobel Prize. Courses taught in organic chemistry. Administrative duties. Colleagues. Funding. Research. Collaboration among industry, research chemists, and microbiologists.

Reflections about the Field of Chemistry 29

Comparison of early and present periods. Relationships with American chemists. Current interests. Future of chemistry and chemical engineering. Preservation of letters and manuscripts.

  About the Interviewer

Tonja A. Koeppel

Tonja A. Koeppel received a master's degree in chemistry from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 1944. Since then she has written about chemistry, done research, and taught college chemistry. Dr. Koeppel is also a historian of chemistry. In 1973 she earned a Ph.D. degree in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania. She is especially interested in the development of organic chemistry in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

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