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Howard E. Simmons Jr.

  • Born: June 17, 1929, Norfolk, Virginia
  • Died: April 26, 1997, Greenville, Delaware

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0111
Interview Date: April 27, 1993
Location: DuPont Experimental Station, Wilmington, Delaware
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 70
Minutes: 240
Sponsor: Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation
Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation

  Abstract of Interview

Howard E. Simmons, Jr., born 17 June 1929, begins the interview describing his family history. The men on his father's side were merchant marines; his maternal grandfather was an entomologist from Germany and descendent of noted entomologist Jacob Hübner. Simmons, an only child growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, pursued early chemistry interests in a home laboratory and graduated high school near the top of his class. Drawn to MIT because of its post-WWII reputation, he studied chemistry and conducted research under Jack D. Roberts. Earning a B.S. in 1951, he continued at MIT with Roberts and Arthur C. Cope, completing Ph.D. research on benzyne, trans-cycloöctene oxide, and cyclobutenes obtained from adducts of acetylene. Here Simmons describes coursework, professors, research, colleagues, and MIT's lab atmosphere. In 1953, Simmons met Theodore L. Cairns, science director in DuPont's Chemical Department, who invited him for a DuPont visit that led to Simmons becoming a member of research staff in the Central Research Department (CRD) in 1954. He began research on polyacetylenes but quickly moved to fluoroketones. His early studies on structure and mechanisms led to the Simmons-Smith reaction, the first general synthesis of cyclopropanes, and a related patent. Here, he discusses this research, relevant colleagues, and thiacyanocarbons studies before moving on to work with Harvard University's Robert B. Woodward and proteges, including Tadamichi Fukunaga and research on spiroconjugation. Simmons mentions collaborations in quantum chemistry and topology with Rudolph Pariser and Richard E. Merrifield, and he details Cairns' program of interaction between DuPont and European universities. He describes trends in turnover from CRD into industrial departments and in company support for publications and basic research. Also discussed are his CRD promotions from Research Supervisor in 1959, to Associate Director of Research in 1970, Director of Research in 1974, Director in 1979, and Vice President in 1983. In the late 1960s, Simmons began collaborations with Chung Ho Park to synthesize macrobiotic amines, large rings containing hydrocarbon cavities. He describes this and related research on crown ethers and their relationships to work by Nobel Laureates Charles Pedersen and Jean-Marie Lehn. He next summarizes additional publications; collaborations with scientists at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) and with Joseph Bunnett, George Hammond, and Jack Leonard; and associations with the University of Chicago and the University of Delaware. Finally, he discusses work as Director under Irving Shapiro and Richard Heckert, and the growth of CRD under Ed Jefferson; CRD accomplishments in molecular biology and superconductivity, including a DNA-sequence reading machine; and Senior Science Advisor and retirement work with DuPont and other organizations, including the University of Delaware Research Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation. He closes with a description of his sons' DuPont careers and comments on scientific misconduct.


1951 B.S., Chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1954 Ph.D., Organic Chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  Professional Experience

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1954 - 1959 Member of Research Staff, Central Research and Development Department

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1959 - 1970 Research Supervisor, Central Research and Development Department

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1970 - 1974 Associate Director of Research, Central Research and Development Department

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1974 - 1979 Director of Research, Central Research and Development Department

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1979 - 1983 Director, Central Research and Development Department

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1983 - 1990 Vice President, Central Research and Development Department

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1990 - 1991 Vice President and Senior Science Advisor, Central Research and Development Department

E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

1991 - 1997 Consultant, Central Research and Development Department

Harvard University

1968 - 1968 Sloan Visiting Professor

University of Delaware

1970 - 1997 Adjunct Professor

University of Chicago

1978 - 1978 Kharasch Professor


1975 Member, National Academy of Sciences
1975 Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1975 Award, Delaware Section, American Chemical Society
1981 Fellow, American Association for Advancement of Science
1987 D.Sc. degree (honorary), Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute
1990 National Science Board, National Academy of Sciences
1991 Chandler Medal, Columbia University
1992 National Medal of Science
1993 D.Sc. degree (honorary), University of Delaware
1994 Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society
1994 Lavoisier Medal, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family Background and Early Education 1

Paternal background as sea captains; maternal ties to entomology and Jacob Hübner, the first man to catalog North American butterflies. Recollections as only child in Norfolk, Virginia; praise for high school teachers. Early home laboratory and interest in studying chemistry and pursuing chemistry career. MIT's reputation after World War II and decision to attend there.

College and Graduate Education at MIT 5

Atmosphere and social life at Boston and MIT upon arrival in late 1940s. Curriculum, professors, meeting and working with J. D. Roberts. Changes in organic chemistry in 1950s. Undergraduate thesis with Roberts. Graduate work with Roberts and A. C. Cope. Factors influencing decisions about post-Ph.D. work and decision to accept position at DuPont. Interactions with T. L. Cairns and Cairns' role building DuPont's Chemical Department. Relationships with Cope and Roberts and dissertation on benzyne, trans-cyclooctene oxide, and cyclobutenes obtained from adducts of acetylene. MIT lab atmosphere and colleagues.

Early DuPont Career 17

First position in Central Research Department and overall company organization. Memories of job interview, salaries, and promotions. Interest in research vs. management career. First assignments. Publishing at DuPont and Cairns' role. Polyacetylene research and move into fluoroketone area. Work on cyclopropane synthesis. Work with R. Smith, E. Blanchard, W. Phillips, and with Roberts as consultant. Research on thiacyanocarbons. Patent on cyclopropanation reaction. Research Supervisor career. Recruiting. Origins of work with R. B. Woodward, work with Woodward's former student T. Fukunaga and predilection for Asian coworkers. Publications in 1960s and move into theoretical work. Relationship with R. Pariser. Interests in quantum chemistry and topology.

DuPont Programs and Culture 31

Cairns' program of interaction and exchange with European universities. Tour of Europe in 1960 and continuing visits to German universities. Later DuPont recruitment of European scientists. History of movement of many CRD recruits into industrial departments and management careers. Company support for publication in Journal of Chemical Physics and elsewhere. Company support for basic research; changes in support levels under varied leadership and after mid-eighties. Attitudes surrounding acquiring Conoco.

Later DuPont Research and Career 38

Publications in 1960s, including spiroconjugation work. Sabbatical in 1968, Visiting Professorship at Harvard and work with Woodward. Work with R. Merrifield. Promotions from Associate Director of Research through Vice President of CRD. Collaboration with C. H. Park in synthesizing macrobiotic amines, large rings containing hydrocarbon cavities, and on crown ether work. Relationships with work of Nobel Laureates C. Pederson and J. M. Lehn. Research on acetylenedicarbonyl fluoride, tetraazatridecane. Position at University of Delaware as adjunct professor and work teaching and advising graduate students. Cyclopropanation work. Visiting professorship at University of Chicago.

Reflections on CRD Directorship and Final Stages of Career 49

CRD's agenda, organization, and operations as Director. Accomplishments in life sciences during 1980s. Discoveries in modern superconductivity business. Development of Freon replacements. Promotion to Senior Science Advisor. Retirement and local activities. Sons' backgrounds and careers at DuPont. Contributions to and pride in recruitment at DuPont. National Academy of Sciences work leading to Prudent Practices in the Laboratory. Views on scientific misconduct.

Notes 58

Index 62

  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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