Jerome A. Berson

Born: May 10, 1924 | Sanford, FL, US
Died: Friday, January 13, 2017

Jerome A. Berson graduated from high school at fifteen and then rode a Good Humor tricycle to earn some money before beginning City College of New York, chosen primarily for economic reasons. He finished at City a semester early and began working on penicillin at Hoffmann-LaRoche. From there he was drafted into the US Army, in which he worked as a medic in India until the end of World War II. Knowing he could not progress with only a bachelor's degree, Berson, with the help of the GI Bill, enrolled at Columbia University, where his PhD mentor was William von Eggers Doering. Doering urged Berson to consider academia as a career and was instrumental in arranging for a postdoctoral fellowship for him with R. B. Woodward at Harvard. Berson credits Woodward and Doering with being two of his prime influences. Berson then went  to the University of Southern California (USC) . Limited resources and manpower at USC caused him to shift his focus to physical organic chemistry. After thirteen years at USC Berson, by now a fully-fledged physical organic chemist, was recruited to the University of Wisconsin, where he stayed for "six of the happiest years of [his] life." Thermal and carbocationic rearrangements, and the role of orbital symmetry in chemical reactions, were the focus of his laboratory during this period. While at Wisconsin, Berson had taken note of Erich Hückel's work, which with Hund's Rule provided continuing themes in his thinking and research. Yale University then recruited Berson. He believed that he had much yet to learn, and he found many teachers and colleagues at Yale and elsewhere. The Yale period included many new studies, especially on non-Kekulé molecules. 

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0196
No. of pages: 102
Minutes: 368

Interview Sessions

Leon B. Gortler
21 March 2001
New Haven, Connecticut

Abstract of Interview

Jerome A. Berson was born in Florida, the older of two children. His father taught Hebrew, and his mother was a milliner and housewife. As a result of the Depression his father struggled to earn a living, and when Berson was about ten the family moved to the Bronx, New York, and then to Long Island, New York. He graduated from high school at fifteen and then rode a Good Humor tricycle to earn some money before beginning City College of New York, chosen primarily for economic reasons. He finished at City a semester early and began working on penicillin at Hoffmann-LaRoche. From there he was drafted into the U. S. Army, in which he worked as a medic in India until the end of World War II. When he was demobilized he married Bella Zevitovsky, whom he had met when they were undergraduates. Knowing he could not progress with only a bachelor's degree, Berson, with the help of the GI Bill, enrolled at Columbia University, where his PhD mentor was William von Eggers Doering. Berson wanted to specialize in the chemistry of natural products, but during these early years Doering began to concentrate on physical organic chemistry. He urged Berson to consider academia as a career and was instrumental in arranging for a postdoctoral fellowship for him with R. B. Woodward at Harvard, where one could soak up the atmosphere of natural products chemistry. Berson credits Woodward and Doering with being two of his prime influences. Learning that jobs were found through the old-boy network, Berson wrote letters to many other universities, receiving only rejections until the University of Southern California (USC) offered him a position. Limited resources and manpower at USC caused him to shift his focus to physical organic chemistry. He attended lively, intense seminars at the University of California, Los Angeles, finding Saul Winstein an enormous influence and eventually "almost a friend." After thirteen years at USC Berson, by now a fully-fledged physical organic chemist, was recruited to the University of Wisconsin, where he stayed for "six of the happiest years of [his] life." At Wisconsin he had funding, facilities, students, and colleagues he could only dream of at USC. His students and he worked hard on exciting, evolving problems; Berson calls it a "seminal time" for him. Thermal and carbocationic rearrangements, and the role of orbital symmetry in chemical reactions, were the focus of his laboratory during this period. While at Wisconsin, Berson had taken note of Erich Hückel's work, which with Hund's Rule provided continuing themes in his thinking and research. Yale University then recruited Berson. The personal reasons he chose to move to Yale included having family nearby and being close to New York City's cultural attractions. Professionally, he noted that Wisconsin's chemistry department, because of its sheer size, was unwieldy to administrate easily as a unit and hence had been divided into sub-units (organic, inorganic, physical, theoretical, et cetera). This fragmentation did not favor cross-disciplinary interactions. He believed that he had much yet to learn, and he found many teachers and colleagues at Yale and elsewhere. The Yale period included many new studies, especially on non-Kekulé molecules. Throughout the interview Berson discusses his own research; the many important chemists he has worked in collaboration with and learned from, some at Yale and others elsewhere; some of his scientific controversies and their resolutions; the enormous changes permitted by technological advances; funding; the vagaries of research and importance of time and setting for progress. Berson explains his current work in the history and philosophy of chemistry; he concludes his interview with thoughts on the present and future of organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1944 City College of New York BS Chemistry
1947 Columbia University AM Chemistry
1949 Columbia University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

US Army

1944 to 1946

F. Hoffman-La Roche AG

1944

University of Southern California

1950 to 1953
Assistant Professor
1953 to 1958
Associate Professor
1958 to 1963
Professor

University of Wisconsin, Madison

1963 to 1969
Professor

Yale University

1969 to 1979
Professor
1979 to 1992
Irénée du Pont Professor
1992 to 1994
Sterling Professor
1994 to 2002
Sterling Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Senior Research Scientist

Honors

Year(s) Award
1949

National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship, Harvard University (R. B. Woodward)

1963

Award, American Chemical Society, California Section

1970

National Academy of Sciences

1971

American Academy of Arts and Sciences

1978

James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1980

US Senior Scientist Award, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

1985

William H. Nichols Medal, American Chemical Society, New York Section

1987

Roger Adams Award, American Chemical Society

1992

Arthur C. Cope Award, American Chemical Society

1998

Oesper Award, American Chemical Society, Cincinnati Section

2000

Literature Award, German Chemical Industry Fund

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Birthplace. High school. Introduction to chemistry. Family financial condition. Father's employment. Mother and sister. Applying to colleges. Attending City College of New York. Students, faculty, courses, and books. Work at Hoffmann-La Roche. German courses.

Graduate School
10

Service in U. S. Army. Marriage to Bella. Children: Ruth, David, and Jonathan. Deciding on Columbia University. Choosing mentor and research. Students at Columbia. William von Eggers Doering. Financial support. Post-doctoral position with R. B. Woodward. Molecular Orbital Theory and Resonance Theory. Erich Hückel and Linus Pauling. Postdoctoral work at Harvard.

Early Academic Career
31

University of Southern California (USC). Environment at USC. Initial research projects. Funding. Equipment. Other organic chemists. Transition into physical organic chemistry. Influence of Saul Winstein. Herbert Brown. Non-classical carbonium ion controversy. Molecular orbital calculations. Influence of Woodward-Hoffman work. Funding issues. Optical purity by isotopic dilution.

University of Wisconsin Years
51

Sigmatropic rearrangements. Thermal reactions. Thermal isomerization of cyclopropanes. Research style. Acetylenic-Cope rearrangement. Biradicals. Hund's Rule. History and philosophy of science. Rediscovery of Hückel work. Writing reviews. Wagner-Meerwein rearrangements.

Career at Yale University
73

Leaving Wisconsin for Yale. Work with Kurt Zilm and Tito Scaiano. Tetramethylenebenzene (TMB). Influential chemists. Christopher Ingold's work. Consulting.

Final Thoughts
82

Present and future of organic and physical organic chemistry. Influence of funding and technology. Recreational activities.

Notes
89
Index
95

About the Interviewer

Leon B. Gortler

Leon Gortler is a professor of chemistry at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He holds AB and MS degrees from the University of Chicago and a PhD 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.