Albert Eschenmoser

Born: August 5, 1925 | Erstfeld, CH

Albert Eschenmoser begins his oral history with a discussion of his childhood and path to the field of organic chemistry.  He discusses his career and how ETH collaborated with Robert B. Woodward's Harvard research group on the B12 project, and in 1972 they announced the success of the vitamin B12 synthesis. Eschenmoser concludes the interview with a discussion of research funding, his professional recognition, and the ramifications of the vitamin B12 synthesis.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0019
No. of pages: 41
Minutes: 130

Interview Sessions

Tonja A. Koeppel
7 October 1985
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

Abstract of Interview

Albert Eschenmoser begins the interview with a discussion of his early life and education. Born in Switzerland, he attended school in the canton of Uri. At the age of sixteen, he decided that he wanted to become a secondary school teacher, and attended an Oberrealschule in St. Gallen. He received his Maturität in 1944, and continued on to the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH). Eschenmoser was encouraged to pursue chemistry, and—inspired by Leopold Ruzicka—concentrated on organic chemistry. His research focused on sesquiterpene chemistry. In 1949, he earned his diploma, and became a doctoral student under Ruzicka. His doctoral thesis addressed acid-catalyzed cyclization, and in 1951 he received his doctorate. Eschenmoser’s research interests then turned to the synthesis of colchicine, which his group accomplished in 1959. Next came vitamin B12 and the corrin ligand system. ETH collaborated with Robert B. Woodward’s Harvard research group on this project, and in 1972 they announced the success of the vitamin B12 synthesis. Eschenmoser concludes the interview with a discussion of research funding, his professional recognition, and the ramifications of the vitamin B12 synthesis.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1949 Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule) Dipl Sc Nat
1951 Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule) Dr Sc Nat Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1956 to 1960
Instructor, Organic Chemistry
1960 to 1965
Associate Professor, Organic Chemistry
1965 to 1992
1992
Professor Emeritus

The Scripps Research Center

1996
Professor, Skaggs Institute for Chemical Bioogy

Honors

Year(s) Award
1949

Kern Prize, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

1956

Werner Prize, Swiss Chemical Society

1958

Ruzicka Prize, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

1966

Fritzsche Award, American Chemical Society

1966

Honorary Degree, University of Fribourg

1970

Honorary ScD, University of Chicago

1973

Foreign Associate, National Academy of Sciences

1973

Marcel Benoist Prize, Eidgenössiches Departement des Innern, Switzerland

1974

Robert A. Welch Award, Houston

1976

Kirkwood Medal, Yale University

1976

August Wilhelm von Hofmann Medal, Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker

1976

ACS Centennial Foreign Fellow, American Chemical Society

1977

Dannie Heineman Prize, Academy of Sciences, Germany (BRD)

1978

Davy Medal, Royal Society

1979

Honorary DsC, University of Edinburgh

1980

Dr. Cliff S. Hamilton Award in Organic Chemistry, Lincoln, Nebraska

1981

Honorary Fellow, Royal Society of Chemistry

1981

Tetrahedron Prize for Creativity in Organic Chemistry, Pergamon Press

1982

George Kenner Award, University of Liverpool

1984

Arthur C. Cope Award, American Chemical Society

1986

Wolf Prize in Chemistry, Wolf Foundation

1988

M. M. Janot Medal, Gif-sur-Yvette

1989

Honorary Degree, Univeristy of Bologna

1990

Honorary Degree, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität

1991

Honorary Degree, Université Louis Pasteur de Strasbourg

1991

Cothenius Medal, Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina

1993

Honorary Degree, Harvard University

1994

CIBA-Drew Award in Biomedical Research, Drew University

1995

H. H. Inhoffen Medall, Gesellschaft für Biotechnologische Forschung

1998

Nakanishi Prize, Chemical Society of Japan

Table of Contents

Family Background and Early Education
1

Growing up in Uri. Desire to become a teacher. Attending the Oberrealschule in St. Gallen. Influence of parents. Continuing studies at the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH).

Chemistry at ETH
3

Decision to pursue chemistry. Focus on organic chemistry. Influence of Leopold Ruzicka. Examinations with Vladimir Prelog. Research with Hans Schinz on sesquiterpene chemistry. Doctoral thesis on acid-catalyzed cyclization. Disproving Ruzicka's structure of zingiberene. Relationship between Ruzicka and Robert B. Woodward.

Synthesis of Natural Products
12

Work on colchicine. Race with Woodward research group. Decision to pursue synthesis of vitamin B12. Importance of corrin ligand system. Development of a model. Collaboration with Woodward group. Impact of Woodward-Hoffmann rules. Announcement of synthesis of vitamin B12. Failure to jointly publish results.

Conclusion
29

Position at ETH. Research funding. Influence of Ruzicka. Awards. Reflections on research.

Notes
35
Index
37

About the Interviewer

Tonja A. Koeppel

Tonja A. Koeppel received a master’s degree in chemistry from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 1944. Since then she has written about chemistry, done research, and taught college chemistry. Dr. Koeppel is also a historian of chemistry. In 1973 she earned a PhD degree in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania. She is especially interested in the development of organic chemistry in the 19th and early 20th centuries.