First Person: Donald Noyce

Donald Noyce (right) and Gilbert Stork on a boat in the Bahamas during a scientific meeting in Barbados, 1973. Courtesy of John D. Roberts, CHF Collections.

The life of a graduate student in chemistry can be pretty mundane; most time is spent in the laboratory and there are often few opportunities for outside socializing. This was as true sixty years ago as it is today; Donald Noyce recalls this feeling in his CHF oral history – in 1946 he was a graduate student at Columbia University, studying the structure of Aspergillus ustus, a mold metabolite that was thought to kill tuberculosis.

The mold Noyce worked with was very limited in quantity – the company that had originally provided him with it said “they wouldn’t grow another…batch because it crapped-up their tanks thoroughly.” This meant that when he worked in the lab all of his energy was spent purifying—and protecting—the mold that he did have. The work was hard and the lab lonely. One of the few ways of socializing while getting work done was (and still is) listening to the radio, and Noyce remembers listening to the 1946 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals with a labmate one day while isolating unpurified Aspergillus ustus. The excitement of the game, however, proved disastrous:

“Somebody hit a home run or something, and we knocked a 25 ml Erlenmeyer flask of the ether solution—which probably had about a gram and a half of the pure material, more or less—off the counter and onto the asphalt tile floor. We tried to extract it from the asphalt tile floor, but we didn’t get enough to count, so I had to finish up with about a gram of the material instead of the 3 or 4 that I thought I was going to have.”

Though he lost a third of his mold in the mishap, the incident proved inconsequential to Noyce’s overall career. He completed his Ph.D. in 1947 and suggested a structure for Aspergillus ustus in his thesis. (“Which turned out to be right,” he notes, “but I couldn’t prove it.”)  In 1948 Noyce began a long and distinguished career at University of California, Berkeley.

As baseball pennant races heat up this fall and the playoffs begin, countless graduate students will be listening to games on the radio just as Noyce did in 1946. Let’s just hope they have slightly better nerves.

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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Posted In: History

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