Frank H. Field
The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.
Abstract of Interview
Frank H. Field was born in Keansburg, New Jersey. Orphaned at an early age, he was raised in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, by an aunt, an uncle, and a grandmother. Somehow when he was a young teenager he saw a chemistry set that he desperately wanted. He did get the set, and he found what he wanted to do with his life. He had a good, solid public school education, which enabled him to be a candidate for college. Field entered Duke University, placing a year ahead in chemistry. He had very little money, and to meet his expenses he worked in the school dining hall and graded math papers. When World War II began, Duke's chemistry department had a contract with the federal government to do research work for defense purposes; during his junior and senior years Field held a full-time position as a lab technician, in addition to being a full-time student. Things were going well for Field at Duke, and they asked him to enroll in graduate school there. He worked on using fluorocarbons as hydraulic fluids to replace hydrocarbons on warships. In addition he took pictures of experiments on solid rocket propellants. He received his PhD for work in magnetochemistry. Field accepted an instructorship, at that time a tenure-track position, at University of Texas. Funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation did not exist, so his funding was very skimpy and came from the University. He had worked in magnetochemistry, but the magnet he needed was too expensive for the University of Texas, so he looked around for something else to do. Humble Oil & Refining Company gave an early mass spectrometer to the University, who gave it to Field. He had to rebuild much of the machine, as all the glassware in the machine had broken in transit to Austin. So began his mass spectrometry career. He worked first on measuring the ionization potential of cyclopropane, which had not previously been measured. To encourage development of basic science at Humble Oil, Joe Franklin persuaded Humble to set up summer courses for professors from various Texas universities, and Field attended one such program. He and Humble liked each other, and Field left the University of Texas to work with Franklin at Humble Oil. Field and Franklin wrote their first book together. Standard Oil Company had bought Humble Oil, and Field eventually moved to Linden, New Jersey, to Esso Research and Engineering Company, where he continued his work on chemical ionization. Feeling "out of the mainstream" at Esso, Field became receptive to the idea of working elsewhere. He was recruited by Rockefeller University as a full professor. He shifted into biochemical mass spectroscopy to be more in keeping with the biomedical orientation of Rockefeller. He built the second Californium-252 mass spectrometer in the world. A talk in Bordeaux, France, excited his enthusiasm for matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) and he persuaded his postdoc, Brian Chait, to build one. Biomedical mass spectroscopy has been able to grow wildly as result of desorption technique. In 1989 Field retired and moved with his wife to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In 2004 he felt the need for a continuing care establishment, and the Fields moved to The Forest at Duke near Duke University. In 2009, Field was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He talks a little about his treatment and prognosis; Field hopes to recover enough to die of old age, as he says. He then continues with the interview topics. He says his only philosophy of science has always been to get a good job and do agreeable, useful work. He believes, however, that a considerable amount of scientific innovation arises from chance observations. He agrees that mass spectroscopy has contributed significantly to biology, but thinks that it is probably at its limits. He says the United States needs to be scientifically competitive, particularly against fast-rising societies like China's. He then summarizes his interest in ionization and talks about other scientists in the field.
University of Texas at Austin
Humble Oil and Refining Company and Esso Research and Development
Esso Research and Engineering Company
The Rockefeller University
|1963 to 1964||
John Simon Guggenheim Fellow
|1970 to 1972||
Vice President, American Society for Mass Spectrometry
|1972 to 1974||
President, American Society for Mass Spectrometry
|1974 to 1976||
Past President, American Society for Mass Spectrometry
|1973 to 1975||
Member, Petroleum Research Fund Advisory Board
Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry
Table of Contents
Born in Keansburg, New Jersey. Orphaned at eleven. Lives with aunt, uncle, and grandmother. Good high school education. Chemistry set sparks interest in chemistry. Self-directed.
Enters Duke University, at that time a football school. Places ahead a year in chemistry. Works in dining hall and graded math papers to supplement income. World War II. As junior and senior works as research technician on a war research project. Full-time student and full-time lab technician.
Chooses Duke because he was doing well there. Working as researcher for war effort. Avoiding draft. Works on using fluorocarbons as hydraulics to replace hydrocarbons on warships. Takes pictures of experiments on solid rocket propellants. Obtains PhD.
Accepts instructorship at University of Texas. Tenure-track position. Very little funding. Magnetochemistry, but magnet too expensive. Humble Oil & Refining Company gives early mass spectrometer to University. Glassware in machine broken, Field rebuilds. Beginning of his mass spectrometry career. Early papers. Cyclopropane.
Worked with Joe Franklin. First book with Franklin. Olefin work. Chemical Ionization. Moves to Esso Research and Engineering Company in Linden, New Jersey. Continues same research.
Feels out of mainstream at Esso. Recruited by Rockefeller as full professor. Chemical ionization work. Begins biochemical mass spectroscopy work. Builds second Californium-252 in world. Talk in Bordeaux, France, excites enthusiasm for matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI); persuades Brian Chait to build one. Biomedical mass spectroscopy grows as result of desorption technique.
Moves to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Moves to The Forest at Duke retirement community in Durham, North Carolina. Develops pancreatic cancer. Discusses treatment and prognosis. Believes scientific innovation can occur from chance observations. Mass spectroscopy has contributed significantly to biology, but probably at its limits. Need to be scientifically competitive as a society. More about interest in ionization. Other scientists in field.
About the Interviewer
Michael A. Grayson is a member of the Mass Spectrometry Research Resource at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his BS degree in physics from St. Louis University in 1963 and his MS in physics from the University of Missouri at Rolla in 1965. He is the author of over 45 papers in the scientific literature. Before joining the Research Resource, he was a staff scientist at McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratory. While completing his undergraduate and graduate education, he worked at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, where he learned the art and science of mass spectrometry. Grayson is a member of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), and has served many different positions within that organization. He has served on the Board of Trustees of CHF and is currently a member of CHF's Heritage Council. He currently pursues his interest in the history of mass spectrometry by recording oral histories, assisting in the collection of papers, and researching the early history of the field.