Jerome A. Berson
The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.
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.
|1944||City College of New York||BS||Chemistry|
F. Hoffman-La Roche AG
University of Southern California
University of Wisconsin, Madison
National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship, Harvard University (R. B. Woodward)
Award, American Chemical Society, California Section
National Academy of Sciences
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society
US Senior Scientist Award, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation
William H. Nichols Medal, American Chemical Society, New York Section
Roger Adams Award, American Chemical Society
Arthur C. Cope Award, American Chemical Society
Oesper Award, American Chemical Society, Cincinnati Section
Literature Award, German Chemical Industry Fund
Table of Contents
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leaving Wisconsin for Yale. Work with Kurt Zilm and Tito Scaiano. Tetramethylenebenzene (TMB). Influential chemists. Christopher Ingold's work. Consulting.
Present and future of organic and physical organic chemistry. Influence of funding and technology. Recreational activities.
About the Interviewer
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.