Donald J. Cram

Born: April 22, 1919 | Chester, VT, US
Died: June 17, 2001 | Palm Desert, CA, US

Donald J. Cram grew up in Vermont, Florida, and New York, and attended Rollins College. He undertook his graduate work at the University of Nebraska with Norman Cromwell, which led him to work at Merck during World War II; he did his doctoral work at Harvard. In 1947 he took a position at the University of California, Los Angeles, and remained at the institution in the chemistry department for over thirty years. Cram's major research effort in the late 1970s on guest-host chemistry led to his sharing the Nobel Prize in 1987. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0079
No. of pages: 53
Minutes: 143

Interview Sessions

Leon B. Gortler
14 January 1981
University of California, Los Angeles Los Angeles, California

Abstract of Interview

In this interview Donald Cram talks briefly about his family and growing up in Vermont, Florida and New York, and this is followed by a description of his experiences at Rollins College and his start in the world of chemistry. Next he talks about his graduate work at the University of Nebraska with Norman Cromwell, the circumstances which led him to work at Merck during World War II, and his work at Merck and the chemists with whom he collaborated. He then talks at length about his doctoral work at Harvard, his research, his coursework, cumulative and foreign language exams, and his interaction with various members of the faculty. In 1947 he took a position at UCLA, and he describes much of his research through the early 1960s, Saul Winstein and his interactions with Winstein, and the changes that took place over thirty years in the UCLA chemistry department. The last part of the interview includes comments on the changes that have taken place in organic chemistry as a result of various factors, the advantages to the academic community of interactions with industry, the state and future of organic chemistry, and a description of his major research effort in the late 1970s, guest-host chemistry. It was this research that led to his sharing the Nobel Prize in 1987. In the final pages of the interview he talks about the influence of theory and theoretical papers on the development of chemistry. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1941 Rollins College BS Chemistry
1942 University of Nebraska MS Chemistry
1947 Harvard University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

Merck & Company Inc.

1942 to 1945
Research Chemist

University of California, Los Angeles

1947 to 1948
American Chemical Society Fellow/Instructor
1948 to 1950
Assistant Professor
1950 to 1956
Associate Professor
1956 to 1990
1985 to 1995
Saul Winstein Professor of Chemistry
1988 to 1990
University Professor
Emeritus Professor


1952 to 1987
Upjohn Co., Consultant
1961 to 1981
Union Carbide, Consultant
1981 to 1991
Eastman Kodak, Consultant
1984 to 1992
Technion Co., Consultant
1988 to 1991
Inst. Guido Donegani, Milan, Consultant


Year(s) Award

Western Sectional Award, American Chemical Society

1954 to 1955

Guggenheim Fellow


Member, National Academy of Sciences


Herbert Newby McCoy Award for Contributions to Chemistry


Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society


Award for Creative Work in Organic Chemistry, Society of Chemical Manufacturers Association


Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Arthur C. Cope Award for Distinguished Achievement in Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society


California Scientist of the Year, Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry


Herbert Newby McCoy Award for Contributions to Chemistry


Rollins College Distinguished Alumni Award


Honorary doctorate, Uppsala University, Sweden


Honorary doctorate, University of Southern California


Roger Adams Award, American Chemical Society


Richard Tolman Medal, Southern California Section, American Chemical Society


Willard Gibbs Award, Chicago Section, American Chemical Society


Nobel Prize in Chemistry


Honorary doctorate, Rollins College


Honorary doctorate, University of Nebraska


Honorary doctorate, University of Western Ontario


Glenn Seaborg Award


Honorary doctorate, University of Sheffield


National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences

Table of Contents

Childhood, Family, Education

Parents. Family values. Attending high school in Florida and New York. Extra-curricular interests.

Rollins College

Scholarship. Chemistry department. Faculty. Deciding to be a college professor. Deciding to be a chemist. Laboratory at Rollins. Introduction to self-learning. Extra-curricular activities. Summer job in New York City.

University of Nebraska

Applying to graduate schools. Work at Nebraska. Norman Cromwell. Research. Courses. Marriage. Chemical literature. Pilot training. Getting job at Merck. Other chemists at Merck. Projects.


National Research Council Fellowship. Influence of Max Tishler. Louis Fieser as mentor. R. B. Woodward and Paul Bartlett. Cumulative exams. Thermodynamics. Work, skiing and courses with R. B. Woodward. Language exams. Research. Deciding when to finish Ph.D. ACS Fellowship. Post-doc with Jack Roberts. Recommendations.


Reading the chemical literature. Mold metabolites. Paracyclophanes. Phenonium ion rearrangements. Securing UCLA position. Rule of steric control of asymmetric induction (Cram's Rule). Concepts vs. empirical leads. Carbanion work. Saul Winstein. The chemistry department.

Changes in Organic Chemistry

Instrumentation. Physical organic chemistry. Effect of World War II. Effect of industrial development in the U. S.

The Future of Organic Chemistry

Synthesis. Bioorganic chemistry. Guest-Host chemistry. The integration of physical organic chemistry into mainstream organic chemistry. Stereospecificity. Compounds with holes.


Changes in approach: Publication of theoretical and speculative papers. Stimulation for new experimental work. Transition state theory. Woodward-Hoffmann rules.


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.