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John D. Roberts

John D. Roberts

CHF Collections, Photograph by Jim Bohning

  • Born: June 8, 1918, Los Angeles, California

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0069
Interview Dates: April 25, 1987 and June 14, 1987
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 73
Minutes: 270

  Abstract of Interview

John Roberts begins the interview with a discussion of his family background. He recounts his early interest in chemistry and his experiences assisting junior high and high school science teachers. He also mentions the impact of Caltech on his interest in chemistry. He than describes his undergraduate years at UCLA, which included a great deal of research and teaching experience. After a brief period at Penn State, he returned to UCLA for graduate school and continued research. He then went to Harvard on National Research Council Fellowship. He recalls fondly his relationship with Cope and other faculty members at MIT, and details his accomplishments there; he also comments on MIT's physical plant, facilities, administration, and general atmosphere. After describing much of his research, he concludes by expressing a bit of guilt for leaving MIT when he did, but he also remembers his excitement in accepting a position at Caltech, to which it seems he had always aspired.


1941 B.A., Chemistry, University of California, Los Angeles
1944 Ph.D., Chemistry, University of California, Los Angeles

  Professional Experience

Pennsylvania State University

1941 - 1942 Teaching Assistant, Chemistry

University of California, Los Angeles

1942 - 1943 Research Assistant, National Defense Research Committee

University of California, Los Angeles

1943 - 1944 Abbott Laboratories Research Fellow, chemistry

University of California, Los Angeles

1944 - 1944 Teaching Assistant

University of California, Los Angeles

1944 - 1945 Instructor, Chemistry

Harvard University

1945 - 1946 National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow

Harvard University

1946 - 1946 Instructor, Chemistry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1946 - 1947 Instructor, Chemistry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1947 - 1950 Assistant Professor, Organic Chemistry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1950 - 1952 Associate Professor, Organic Chemistry

California Institute of Technology

1952 - 1953 Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow

California Institute of Technology

1953 - 1972 Professor of Chemistry

California Institute of Technology

1955 - 1956 Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow

California Institute of Technology

1963 - 1968 Chairman, Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

California Institute of Technology

1972 - 1973 Acting Chairman, Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

California Institute of Technology

1972 - 1988 Institute Professor of Chemistry

California Institute of Technology

1980 - 1983 Vice President, Provost and Dean of the Faculty

California Institute of Technology

1988 Institute Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus


1952 Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1954 American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry
1956 Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences
1957 Harrison Howe Award, Rochester Section, ACS
1962 Dr. rer. nat. hon. caus., University of Munich
1964 Dr. Sci., Temple University
1967 Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry, ACS
1967 UCLA Alumni Achievement Award
1972 William H. Nichols Medal, New York Section, ACS
1975 Richard C. Tolman Medal, Southern California Section, ACS
1976 Michelson-Morley Award, Case Western Reserve University
1979 James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, Northeastern Section, ACS
1980 Linus Pauling Award, Oregon and Puget Sound Sections, ACS
1982 Theodore William Richards Medal, Northeastern Section, ACS
1983 Willard Gibbs Gold Medalist, Chicago Section, ACS
1984 Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement
1987 Priestley Medal, ACS
1990 Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family and Early Education 1

Family background. Suffers severe illness in sixth grade. Develops interest in inventors and scientists. Becomes assistant to junior high school science teacher. Frequents high-voltage laboratory at Caltech. Admires teachers who challenge.

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) 6

Finds first semester easy despite working long hours. Second semester more difficult. Facilities rather primitive. School focuses on undergraduates. Builds bubbler and becomes excellent glass blower. Takes summer job with Professor Crowell; becomes research and teaching assistant as undergraduate. Begins work with Grignard reagents under Young and shares lab with McMillan.

Pennsylvania State University 15

Impressed by laboratory facilities. Work with Whitmore. Despite short stay, gains important knowledge and experience.

Return to UCLA 17

Ph.D. program newly established. Works on war project with Geissman. Returns to work with Grignard reagents. Friendship with Winstein. Interest in and work with dipole moments and small-ring compounds begins. Completes thesis. Offered teaching position. Synthesizes cyclopropanol.

Harvard University 23

Receives National Research Council Fellowship. Continues cyclopropane project. Friendship with Bartlett. Exciting atmosphere, chemists at Harvard. Explores areas not covered at UCLA. Teaches physical chemistry.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology 25

Position at Berkeley. Conflict with Morton. Coryell and Young influence decision to take position at MIT. Poor facilities except for nuclear science, so begins work with carbon-14. Laboratories renovated/facilities improve. Admires Cope. Socializing with the Copes and Sheehans. Sheehan's synthesis of penicillin and patenting of intermediate. Enjoys working with Swain. Teaches physical organic, elementary organic courses. Graduate students and work with seniors on theses. Works with Mazur on small-ring compounds. Discovers rapid rearrangement in Bartlett-Condon-Schneider experiment. First exposure to molecular orbital theory. Interacts periodically with Winstein. Much work with norbornene compounds. Benzyne research creates controversy. Receives ACS Award in Pure Chemistry. Consults for DuPont and Oak Ridge. Receives Priestley Medal. Disappointed by administrative problems, especially with library. Tempted by Columbia offer because of high esteem for Hammett.

California Institute of Technology 58

Arrives on Guggenheim Fellowship. Impressed by facilities. Asserts independence from Cope. Feels guilty about leaving MIT but loves the different atmosphere at Caltech.

Notes 60

Index 63

  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.

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