Karl A. Folkers

Born: September 1, 1906 | Decatur, IL, US
Died: Sunday, December 7, 1997 | Sunapee, NH, US
Photograph of Karl Folkers

In this interview, Karl Folkers first talks about his family and his early exposure to science. He then describes some of his experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, and as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. This is followed by a long discussion of his years at Merck, and includes his research on vitamins, particularly vitamin B 12 , his work on penicillin, the structure of research at Merck, and comments on various co-workers and administrators.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0150
No. of pages: 72

Interview Sessions

Leon B. Gortler
6 July 1990
Folker's Summer Home, Sunapee, New Hampshire

Abstract of Interview

In this interview, Karl Folkers first talks about his family and his early exposure to science. He then describes some of his experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, and as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. This is followed by a long discussion of his years at Merck, and includes his research on vitamins, particularly vitamin B12, his work on penicillin, the structure of research at Merck, and comments on various co-workers and administrators. Special attention is paid to coenzyme Q10, a project begun at Merck and continued for the last thirty-seven years. After Merck, Folkers talks about his five-year tenure as president of the Stanford Research Institute, and then about his current research at the University of Texas, including his work on vitamin B6 and the carpal tunnel syndrome, and his work on peptide hormones.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1928 University of Illinois at Chicago BS
1931 University of Wisconsin, Madison PhD

Professional Experience

Yale University

1931 to 1934
Postdoctoral Fellow, Squibb & Lilly Research Fellow

Merck & Company Inc.

1934 to 1938
Research Chemist, Laboratory of Pure Research
1938 to 1945
Assistant Director of Research
1945 to 1951
Director, Organic and Biochemical Research Department
1951 to 1953
Associate Director, Research and Development Division
1953 to 1956
Director, Organic and Biological Chemical Research
1956 to 1962
Executive Director, Fundamental Research
1963
Vice President for Exploratory Research

American Chemical Society

1962
President

Stanford Research Institute

1963 to 1968
President and CEO

University of Texas at Austin

1968
Ashbel Smith Professor of Chemistry and Director of The Institute for Biomedical Research

Karl Folkers Foundation for Biomedical and Clinical Research

1990
President

Honors

Year(s) Award
1940

Mead Johnson & Company Award (Co-recipient)

1941

Award in Pure Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1948

Elected, National Academy of Sciences

1948

Presidential Certificate of Merit (Harry S. Truman)

1948

Mead Johnson & Company Award (Co-recipient)

1951

Board of Director's Scientific Award, Merck & Co. , Inc.

1959

Spencer Award, American Chemical Society, Kansas City Section

1960

Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)

1962

DSc, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science

1967

Nichols Medal, American Chemical Society, New York Section

1969

DSc, University of Uppsala

1969

DSc, University of Wisconsin

1969

Van Meter Prize, American Thyroid Association (Co-recipient)

1972

Robert A. Welch International Award and Medal

1973

DSc, University of Illinois

1974

APhA Research Achievement Award, Academy of Pharmaceutical Science

1977

Alexander von Humbolt-Stiftung Award

1980

Award by Austin Capital of the Age of Enlightment

1986

Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society

1986

Illinois Alumni Achievement Award, University of Illinois

1989

Doctorate in Medicine, University of Bologna

1990

President's National Medal of Science (George H. W. Bush)

1994

Achievement Award in Preventive Medicine, American College for Advancement in Medicine

Table of Contents

Family, Early Education, Chemistry
1

Father's background, education, occupation. Parents' attitude toward Karl going to college. Mother's background. Interest in science: Reading. High school chemistry. Theme on chemistry written in high school. Chemical demonstrations at nearby university. Home laboratory.

University of Illinois
5

Decision to go to college and to the University of Illinois. Jobs at the University: Dishwasher, waiter, librarian. Non-science courses: Economics, ROTC, foreign languages. The chemistry department: Roger Adams, Speed Marvel. Jack Johnson. Decision to go to Wisconsin. Adams and Marvel support of Illinois graduates. Henry Gilman. Advice from Sally Sparks and Speed Marvel.

Graduate School: University of Wisconsin
10

Choosing a mentor: Interviews with McElvain and Adkins. Research with Adkins: High pressure hydrogenation. Ralph Connor. Discovering the copper chromite catalyst. Art Cope. Adkin's attitutde toward biochemistry. Different attitude of Treat Johnson. The search for biologically active compounds. Financial support at Wisconsin. Teaching at Wisconsin.

Postdoctoral Research: Yale, Treat B. Johnson
14

Late application to James Conant at Harvard, who became President of Harvard. Application to Treat B. Johnson. Requirement for personal essay. T. B. Johnson: Personality, chemistry, influence. Offer from Jack Johnson to go to Cornell. Marriage to Selma Johnson, 1932. Children and grandchildren.

Merck
16

Looking for an industrial job. Offers from General Electric and from George Perkins of Merck. Negotiating salary with Randolph Major. Comments of Treat Johnson on two offers. Choosing Merck. First assignments at Merck: Horse sedative, Erythrina seeds, curare. Work on Erythrina alkaloids. Other chemists in pure research: Fernholz, Walti, Stiller. Microanalysis laboratory: Douglas Hayman. Klaus Unna. Development research: William Engels.

Merck: Vitamins
21

Randolph Major's foresight. John Keresztesy. Robert Williams: Thiamine (Vitamin B1). Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6). Stan Harris. Hiring people from Rockefeller. The structure of pyridoxine: UV spectroscopy; microanalysis; molecular formula; color reactions; total synthesis. Competition with Richard Kuhn on structure of B6. Adolph Butenandt. Testing for biological activity: Gladys and Oliver Emerson. Pantothenic acid: Roger Williams. Biotin: Vincent du Vigneaud. Desulfurization: Ralph Mozingo.

Structure of Penicillin
26

Molecular formula. Difference with physical chemists over basicity. The beta-lactam structure. Building up specialties: Microchemistry, microanalysis, hydrogenation. Desulfurization of penicillin. Chemists and research assistants working on biotin. Dorothea Heyl: First woman chemist Folkers hired. Getting involved in the penicillin project. Publication of the penicillin research. Synthesis of penicillin.

Merck, Research
30

Randolph Major: Contributions to Merck. Consultants. Cortisone. Streptomycin: Structure. Changing administrative structure: Response to changing research. Boyd Woodruff. Pure research at Merck in the early 1930s: "Blue Sky" research versus profit-oriented research. Vitamin research. Vitamin therapy.

Vitamin B
34

Decision to use chromatography. Randolph West, clinician. Supply of liver residue from Henry Dakin. Excitement caused by first sample sent to Dr. West. Competitors in the search for the anti-pernicious anemia factor. Discovering Mary Shorb's assay for a factor in liver. Discovering B12 in a fermentation broth. Searching for a unique physical property for B12: Discovery and utilization of the red color. Excitement at the isolation of B12. Discovery that B12 was the animal growth factor. Threat to stop B12 project.

Merck: Research and Administration
40

Per Frolich. Randolph Major. Providing information to Glaxo on B12. Merger with Sharp & Dohme. James Sprague. Presidents of Merck: James Kerrigan, George Merck. Antibiotics. Vitamins: Lipoic acid, biotin. Mevalonic acid. Using new instruments to solve problems. Arthur Wagner. Writing research papers. Interview for presidency of MSDRL with Vannevar Bush. Response to Tishler heading MSDRL. Adding cyanide to B12 residues.

Coenzyme Q
49

Sample from David Green. Importance. Naming of coenzyme Q10. Goal of Co-Q research. Merck abandons Co-Q.

Presidency of American Chemical Society
51
Leaving Merck; Stanford Research Institute
52

Choice to leave Merck. Temptations of California. Positions at SRI. Accomplishments. Drawbacks.

University of Texas
53

Initial overture from Texas (1963). Negotiating position at Texas (1968). Formation of The Institute for Biomedical Research: Funding. Developing assay for EGOT. Proving a B6 deficiency for the carpal tunnel syndrome.

Peptide Hormones
56

Origin of work. Cy Bowers. Andrew Schally. Receiving first hormone samples. Solving the structure problem. LHRH inhibitors. Inhibitors for tumor growth factors.

Miscellaneous
59

Clinical co-workers. Approach to designing new drugs. Faithfulness in research. Co-Q10. Rewards. Presidential Medal: Recognition by Japanese "scientific sons. " Difficulty in achieving research success: B6 and the carpal tunnel syndrome. New heart pump monitor. Karl Folkers Foundation for Biomedical and Clinical Research.

Notes
65
Index
68

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.