Paul Kebarle

Born: September 21, 1926 | Sofia, BG

Paul Kebarle was born in Bulgaria. Kebarle escaped to Czechoslovakia during World War II, thence to Switzerland, where he studied at ETH as a major in chemical engineering. Kebarle then became a lab research assistant at University of British Columbia, where he obtained his PhD in chemistry under Allen Bryce, studying mass spectrometry.   Two years of postdoctoral work with Fred Lossing at the National Research Council produced many publications, some amplifying his thesis on butene-1. Kebarle was next hired as professor at the University of Alberta, where he continued his high rate of important publications, until his work “disappeared” because of the internalization in the discipline of chemistry. He worked on electrospray MS, publishing with Udo Verkerk what he considers his most important paper. Karl Kopecky is also interviewed, adding his personal recollections of Kebarle. He claims that Kebarle’s work is so important that it forms the core of the subject in all standard chemistry textbooks.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0899
No. of pages: 75
Minutes: 202

Interview Sessions

Michael A. Grayson
22 May 2013
University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

Abstract of Interview

Paul Kebarle was born in Bulgaria, where his father was a business man and his mother a housewife. Kebarle escaped to Czechoslovakia, ostensibly for treatment for scoliosis, thence to Switzerland, where he studied nonstop to pass the entrance exam for ETH. At ETH he majored in chemical engineering. Kebarle then became a lab instructor at University of British Columbia, where he obtained his PhD in chemistry under Allen Bryce, studying mass spectrometry (MS). He taught himself MS by fixing an instrument made by the National Research Council (NRC); he had to learn glassblowing to plug leaks. He began with pyrolysis MS and built the more specific and comprehensive gas chromatography-mass spectroscope (GC-MS).

Two years of postdoctoral work with Fred Lossing at the NRC produced many publications, some amplifying his thesis on butene-1. Kebarle was next hired as professor at the University of Alberta, where he continued his high rate of important publications, until – he says – his work “disappears” because it has been internalized in the discipline of chemistry. He worked on electrospray MS, publishing with Udo Verkerk what he considers his most important paper. Mandatory retirement age pushed him into a smaller office, but a substantial grant has kept him working and publishing for many years. He and his wife maintain an active outdoor life, biking, walking, and skiing.

Kebarle talks about his family, former colleagues, and the impact of mass spectroscopy on biology. He “fell into” science and urges young people to try it and to work hard at it. He did not experience competition in his field. Kebarle believes that MS will continue to be useful, but that it will not provide the earth-shattering discoveries of the past.

Karl Kopecky added his notes on Kebarle. He explains that Kebarle worked in high-pressure MS, electrospray MS, and ionization MS. He claims that Kebarle’s work is so important that it forms the core of the subject in all standard chemistry textbooks. Kebarle’s work has implications for thermodynamics, computational chemistry, protein folding, and drug interactions. A humble man, Kebarle made nothing of his more than thirty articles that have been cited more than one hundred times.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1952 Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule) Dipl. ETH Honors Chemical Engineering
1956 University of British Columbia PhD Chemisty

Professional Experience

National Research Council Canada

1956 to 1958
Postdoctoral Fellow

University of Alberta

1958 to 2014
Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1965

Member, New York Academy of Sciences

1969

Fellow, Chemical Institute of Canada

1978

Fellow, Royal Society of Canada

1980

Member, Sigma Xi Research Society

1980

Award for Excellence, Province of Alberta

1984

McCalla Professor, University of Alberta

1986

CIC Medal, Chemical Institute of Canada

1989

J. Gordan Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research, University of Alberta

1994

Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry, American Chemical Society

1994

Fred P. Lossing Award, Canadian Society for Mass Spectrometry

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born in Sofia, Bulgaria. Family background. Impact of the Battle of Stalingrad. Escape to Switzerland. Preparing for entrance exam for ETH. Majors in chemical engineering.

Leaving Europe for Canada
11

Works as lab instructor at University of British Columbia. PhD in chemistry under Allen Bryce, studying mass spectrometry. National Research Council. Begins with pyrolysis MS; builds gas chromatography MS to separate substances into many more components. Postdoctoral work with Fred Lossing at NRC in Ottawa, Canada. Marries. Thesis on butene-1.

Professorship
15

Recruited by Harry Gunning at University of Alberta. Many important publications. Says his work “disappears” as it becomes internalized in chemistry discipline. Electrospray. Enjoys physical chemistry, smaller classes. Using Jell-O in teaching. Funding from NRC. SCIEX Corporation. American Society for Mass Spectrometry. Frank Field, Joe Franklin. Building first spectrometer.

Retirement
38

Mandatory retirement age. Continued working and publishing for many more years. Smaller office; working less. Likes outdoors; bikes to work; skis in winter, advice on avoiding cornices and grizzly bears.

General Observations
42

Getting family out of Communist Bulgaria. Alpha particles, ionization. Most-quoted work about electrospray, written with Udo Verkerk. Impact of MS on biology. Former colleagues. “Fell into” science. Advice to young people. Did not feel competition. Biggest change in field. MS’s future:  still useful, but no expansion.

Interview with Karl Kopecky on Kebarle
57

High-pressure MS; alpha ionization process. Kebarle’s work important breakthrough for MS. Kebarle’s work subsumed into physical chemistry texts; impact on protein MS and computational chemistry. Cation-π experiments. Experiments with benzene yield implications for protein folding. Drug interactions and membrane transport. Citations of work. Continues working after retirement, using substantial grant. Impressions of Kebarle.

Index
74

About the Interviewer

Michael A. Grayson

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.