Linneaus C. Dorman

Linneaus Dorman tells how he became interested in chemistry.

Linneaus C. Dorman (b. 1935) was the son of two teachers who had the foresight to send their son to the laboratory school at South Carolina State College (now South Carolina State University), a historically black college in their hometown of Orangeburg. This school was the college’s training ground for student teachers, and it afforded Dorman a much better education than was normally available in the rural South at that time.

As a boy, Dorman became interested in science by playing with a friend’s chemistry set. Later, his high school teachers recognized his talent and encouraged him in his scientific studies. As the son of a World War I veteran—his father had seen combat in France—Dorman was able to take advantage of a scholarship program offered by Bradley University, in Peoria, Illinois, where he majored in chemistry. Bradley was home to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northern Regional Research Laboratory, which used science to help the farmers of the Midwest be more productive. Agricultural chemistry was very important at Bradley, as it would be in shaping Dorman’s career path.

Think you can't afford a Ph.D.? Dorman tells how a tip from a professor showed that it easier than you might think to pay for your education.

Dorman earned his Ph.D. at Indiana University, where his schooling was subsidized by a fellowship from Dow Chemical. After graduation he was quickly hired by Dow, where he was first engaged in agricultural chemistry. Dow and Dorman eventually became involved in the chemistry of living things in general, and this led to his interest in proteins.

Proteins are polymers of the type polyamides, or in the terminology of Emil Fischer, polypeptides. They perform an amazing variety of jobs in living bodies, and their particular molecular structures determine how they behave. By altering the molecular structure of natural proteins, Dorman hoped to create synthetic proteins that could be used in the human body for medical purposes. He succeeded in modifying the natural protein fibrinogen, which enables blood to clot, in order to make a synthetic derivative that does just the opposite, serving instead as an anticlotting agent that helps prevent heart attacks. Dorman also invented peptides that could be used to diagnose diseases. One of his most important inventions was a polypeptide for replacing bone material in the body. As illustrated below, he combined this polymer with tiny particles of calcium phosphate scattered throughout it, just as bones are made from natural proteins combined with calcium salts. He crosslinked the polymer chains he had created to lock everything into place. (For more on crosslinking, see Ruth Benerito.)

Wallace Carothers and later polymer scientists like Stephanie Kwolek mostly researched synthetic materials as replacements for things once made from natural cotton, bone, or wood. But Dorman’s research went in a different direction. The bone replacements and diagnostic tests he helped create were early examples of using polymers for biological and medical purposes to be applied in the human body itself. Today, the use of designed synthetic polymers in medicine is still in the early stages, and many great discoveries await those who follow in Dorman’s footsteps.

Dorman relates how a scientist accidentally discovered an artificial sweetener.

Dorman researched many other areas of chemistry in his long career at Dow. One interesting invention was his system for encapsulating agricultural fertilizers in shells of synthetic polymers that slowly degrade over time. This allows the fertilizer to be released into the soil slowly, instead of all at once. In this way the environmental impact of fertilizer use is reduced. Now retired from Dow, Dorman received 26 U.S. patents for his inventions.

 

The above video clips were taken from an interview with Linneaus Dorman, conducted by David Brock, July 2000.

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