Karl A. Folkers
The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.
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.
|1928||University of Illinois at Chicago||BS|
|1931||University of Wisconsin, Madison||PhD|
Merck & Company Inc.
American Chemical Society
Stanford Research Institute
University of Texas at Austin
Karl Folkers Foundation for Biomedical and Clinical Research
Mead Johnson & Company Award (Co-recipient)
Award in Pure Chemistry, American Chemical Society
Elected, National Academy of Sciences
Presidential Certificate of Merit (Harry S. Truman)
Mead Johnson & Company Award (Co-recipient)
Board of Director's Scientific Award, Merck & Co. , Inc.
Spencer Award, American Chemical Society, Kansas City Section
Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)
DSc, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science
Nichols Medal, American Chemical Society, New York Section
DSc, University of Uppsala
DSc, University of Wisconsin
Van Meter Prize, American Thyroid Association (Co-recipient)
Robert A. Welch International Award and Medal
DSc, University of Illinois
APhA Research Achievement Award, Academy of Pharmaceutical Science
Alexander von Humbolt-Stiftung Award
Award by Austin Capital of the Age of Enlightment
Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society
Illinois Alumni Achievement Award, University of Illinois
Doctorate in Medicine, University of Bologna
President's National Medal of Science (George H. W. Bush)
Achievement Award in Preventive Medicine, American College for Advancement in Medicine
Table of Contents
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sample from David Green. Importance. Naming of coenzyme Q10. Goal of Co-Q research. Merck abandons Co-Q.
Choice to leave Merck. Temptations of California. Positions at SRI. Accomplishments. Drawbacks.
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.
Origin of work. Cy Bowers. Andrew Schally. Receiving first hormone samples. Solving the structure problem. LHRH inhibitors. Inhibitors for tumor growth factors.
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.
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.