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Frank H. Westheimer

  • Born: January 15, 1912, Baltimore, Maryland
  • Died: April 14, 2007

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0046
Interview Dates: January 4, 1979 and January 5, 1979
Location: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Interviewer: Leon B. Gortler
No. of pages: 130
Minutes: 450

  Abstract of Interview

In this interview, Frank Westheimer begins with his family, his childhood and early education in Baltimore, his undergraduate days at Dartmouth, his decision to go into chemistry, and his choice of Harvard for graduate work. Next, he covers his years as a graduate student at Harvard and talks about his research with James Conant and Elmer Kohler, the faculty at Harvard and the courses they taught, and his summer work with Alsoph Corwin at Johns Hopkins. He also talks at length about his early interest in biochemistry, his view of theoretical organic chemistry in the mid-1930s and the opportunities for research open to him, the development of theoretical organic chemistry in the early part of the twentieth century, and the publications of some of the early scientists. This is followed by a description of his year as a National Research Fellow at Columbia, his research, his colleagues, and more on the development of his interest in biochemical problems. Westheimer continues with the offer of a position at the University of Chicago from Morris Kharasch, and includes an extensive discussion of the university, his research, and his collaboration with John Kirkwook, Joe Mayer and Birgit Vennesland. In the next part of the interview, he comments on his selection and training of students and discusses a number of former students who have been successful in research careers. The interview concludes with more discussion of physical organic chemistry, past, present and future; a review of his work on the hydrolysis of phosphate esters and pseudorotation; comments on the future of organic chemistry; and a review of the Westheimer Report, the analysis of American chemistry by the National Academy of Sciences.


1932 A.B., Chemistry, Dartmouth College
1933 M.A., Chemistry, Harvard University
1935 Ph.D., Chemistry (mentors: James B. Conant, Elmer P. Kohler), Harvard University

  Professional Experience

Columbia University

1935 - 1936 National Research Fellow (with Louis Hammett)

University of Chicago

1936 - 1941 Instructor

University of Chicago

1941 - 1946 Assistant Professor

University of Chicago

1946 - 1948 Associate Professor

University of Chicago

1948 - 1954 Professor

National Defense Research Committee

1944 - 1945 Research Supervisor, Explosives Research Laboratory

Harvard University

1953 - 1954 Visiting Professor

Harvard University

1954 - 1960 Professor

Harvard University

1959 - 1962 Department Chairman

Harvard University

1960 - 1982 Loeb Professor of Chemistry

Harvard University

1982 - 1983 Senior Professor

Harvard University

1983 Loeb Professor of Chemistry Emeritus

President's Science Advisory Committee

1967 - 1970 Member

National Academy of Science Committee to Survey Chemistry (Westheimer Report)

1964 - 1965 Chairman


1954 Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences
1970 Willard Gibbs Medal, Chicago Section, American Chemical Society
1970 James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, Northeastern Section, American Chemical Society
1976 Theodore William Richards Medal, Northeastern Section, American Chemical Society
1980 Richard Kokes Award, National Academy of Sciences
1980 Charles Frederick Chandler Award
1981 Lewis C. Rosenstiel Award, Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center
1982 Robert A. Welch Award, The Robert A. Welch Foundation
1982 Arthur C. Cope Award, American Chemical Society
1982 William H. Nichols Medal, New York Section, American Chemical Society
1983 Christopher Ingold Medal, The Chemical Society of London
1988 Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood, Family and Early Education 1

Father's background and abilities. Father's influence. Family values of hard work and integrity. Mother's background and her role. Early schooling. Problems with spelling and writing. English lessons from James Senior at the University of Chicago. Learning trigonometry on his own. Lesson learned. Jobs as a teenager. Early reading.

Undergraduate Education at Dartmouth 7

Selecting a college. Entered Dartmouth, 1928. Experiences at Dartmouth. Intelligence testing. Decision to become a chemist. Parents' reaction. View of being a chemist. Decision to enter Harvard and work with James Conant. Chemistry courses at Dartmouth. State of the chemistry laboratories. Undergraduate research and current opinion of its value. Nonscience courses at Dartmouth.

Graduate Study at Harvard 16

Courses. Picking a research mentor. First research project. Research with Elmer Kohler. Friends and associates at Harvard. Development of interest in biochemistry. Research with Alsoph Corwin. Thoughts on theoretical organic chemistry as a graduate student. Awarded National Research Fellowship. Important conversation with James Conant. Courses with George Kistiakowsky, Elmer Kohler, Louis Fieser and Paul Bartlett. Thoughts on the development of organic chemistry. Reading in organic chemistry—comments on the work of Louis Hammett, Arthur Lapworth, Max Bodenstein, Robert Robinson, Christopher Ingold. First meeting with George Wheland. 

Research at Columbia University 32

More on development of interest in biochemistry. Selection by Morris Kharasch for Chicago position. Anti-Semitism in chemistry. Graduate students and faculty at Columbia.

University of Chicago 41

First research papers from Chicago. Teaching physical organic chemistry for the first time. Collaboration with John Kirkwood. Robert Hutchins' view of science. Morris Kharasch and other Chicago faculty. Chicago's emphasis on physical organic chemistry. Important criterion for choosing a research problem. Chromic acid oxidation. Meeting with Jan Rocek in London. Research facilities at Chicago. Postwar atmosphere in chemistry at Chicago—great scientists, exciting problems. Reason for leaving Chicago. Courses taught and textbooks used.

Research Projects and Philosophy 63

Reading the literature. Research productivity and the size of research groups. Project on optically active biphenyls with Joe Mayer. Nitration of aromatic compounds. Work at Bruceton, the Explosives Research Laboratory. Kinetic analysis. Decarboxylation research. Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) research—enzymatic oxidation-reduction. Paper of A. G. Ogston on asymmetric decarboxylation. The use of kinetic isotope effects in mechanistic studies. Optically active deuteroethanol. Simultaneous publication with Andrew Streitwieser.

Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Fellows 83

Selection of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The training of graduate students. Former graduate students and postdocs who have been successful.

Physical Organic Chemistry 87

The community in 1935 and 1940. Self-recognition as a community. The community in 1946. Knowledge of Lewis bonding theory as an undergraduate. Delay in the beginning of physical organic chemistry. The effect of successful empirical organic chemistry. Current status of physical organic chemistry.

The Hydrolysis of Phosphate Esters. Pseudorotation. 97

The Future of Chemistry. The Use of Enzymes. 102

The Westheimer Report 104

Notes 111

Index 117

  About the Interviewers

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.

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