First Person: Ernest H. Volwiler

Ernest H. Volwiler. CHF Collections.

At the close of World War II, Ernest H. Volwiler was asked to do something out of the ordinary for an industrial chemist: visit German chemistry facilities on an intelligence mission. It was, he explained in his 1986 oral history, “a very interesting development, because we didn't have a good idea about the kinds of activities the Germans were involved in and how intensive they were.”

Born in 1893, Volwiler was already an established organic chemist by the 1940s; after earning his Ph.D. under Roger Adams at the University of Illinois in 1918, Volwiler began a lengthy career at Abbott Laboratories. As skilled, experienced synthetic organic chemists, Volwiler and Abbott were perfectly suited to understand the types of research that might be found in Germany. The most unexpected thing they uncovered on their trip was German research into war gases. Volwiler recounted:

They mentioned agricultural chemicals, and out of that came the statement that their work in agricultural chemicals included phosphorus compounds which were very toxic. Then the matter of war gases came up. […] We quickly dispatched a plane to Paris and another plane to London to the American headquarters there who sent the information to the United States. That was the first information that we had in this country of what the German war gas compounds were.

In talking with German chemists, Volwiler found that though they were all quite skilled, their industrial plants “had not developed on a scale we thought they had.” Volwiler remembers seeing heavily damaged chemical plants throughout the country as they visited Leverkusen, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, and Munich. Following just days after the Allied troops, Volwiler and his team found that the German scientists were easy to speak with and did not take coercing or convincing. He explained, “Oh, they were scared to death and they were very cooperative. In general they were frightened. Of course they tried to hide some things if they could get by with them, but in general it worked out very well. ”

After this brief interlude in Germany, Volwiler returned to Abbott Laboratories, where in 1946 he became Executive Vice President. His oral history is cataloged on CHF's website here.

Hilary Domush is a program associate in oral history at CHF. "First Person,” which highlights one of CHF's over 400 oral histories, appears the third Friday of every month.

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