William S. Knowles

Born: June 1, 1917 | Taunton, MA, US
Died: June 13, 2012 | Chesterfield, MO, US

William S. Knowles begins his oral history by discussing his early life during the Great Depression and his education, including time at Harvard University and Columbia University. Knowles spent the majority of his career at Monsanto Company, where he moved from studies of vanillin to research on steroid chemistry and L-Dopa, among other topics. Knowles discusses the many projects he worked on while at Monsanto, his 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the challenges of being an industrial scientist.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0406
No. of pages: 144
Minutes: 302

Interview Sessions

Michael A. Grayson
30 January 2008
St. Louis, Missouri

Abstract of Interview

William S. Knowles' oral history begins with his childhood, attending boarding schools in Depression Era New England. Knowles excelled as a student at the Berkshire School and Phillips Academy, Andover before attending Harvard University to pursue chemistry. Knowles' academic career allowed him to avoid the draft during World War II and, instead, attend Columbia University to study steroids with Robert C. Elderfield. Completing his PhD in only three years, Knowles then moved into industrial chemistry, going to work for Monsanto, at which he would spend the rest of his career. His work there began with basic studies of vanillin and other chemical compounds. Knowles was sent on a leave of absence in 1951 to complete a post-doctorate on total steroid synthesis with Robert B. Woodward at Harvard, an experience that would alter his career path forever. Following Knowles post-doctorate, he moved into studying pharmaceutical chemistry. Throughout the oral history, Knowles discusses the many projects he worked on through his years at Monsanto and how they led to the work that would garner him the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Additionally, Knowles gives interesting insight into the challenges and opportunities presented by being a scientist in an industrial setting; and life as a Nobel Laureate, examining the prestige, politicization, and downside of winning the world's most well-known academic honor.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1939 Harvard University AB Chemistry
1942 Columbia University PhD Steroids

Professional Experience

Monsanto Chemical Company

1942 to 1944
Chemical Research and Development
1944 to 1951
Organic Division
1952 to 1966
Group Leader, Scientist, Research Advisor
1966 to 1970
Senior Scientist
Distinguished Science Fellow
1982 to 1986
Agricultural Chemicals Division

Harvard University

1951 to 1952
Academic Leave, Total Synthesis of Steroids, R.B. Woodward


Year(s) Award

IR 100 Award, Asymmetric Hydrogenation Process


St. Louis American Chemical Society Section Award


Monsanto Thomas and Hochwalt Award


American Chemical Society Award for Creative Invention


The Organic Reactions Catalysis Society Paul N. Rylander Award


Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Table of Contents

Recent Works

Recent retrospective publications. Collaborations with Noyori.


Born in Massachusetts. Father owned a cotton mill. Life during the Great Depression. Attending boarding school. Good student but socially immature. Phillips Academy, Andover as a prep school for Harvard.

Summer Off

Sailed from Gloucester, MA to Norway in 1935 between high school and college. Schooner had no power, only sails. Traveled around Europe and returned to the USĀ on a Swedish steam ship. Grew up sailing. Parents encouraging of travel.


Requirements for entrance. Types of chemistry taken. Studying with Louis Feiser. Chemistry Labs. Difference between Chemists and Med students in Classes.


Importance of the experience for emotional growth. Desire to go west.

Graduate School

Knew he eventually wanted to go to industry. Draft deferred due to graduate school. Only had three years to finish. Studying locoweed. Research failed, switched to cardiac alglycones. Advisor Elderfield typically away from lab. Program run by Gus Fried.

New York in the War Years

Influx of Jewish scientists during the war years. What they did in New York. Racism. What was going on with the war effort.

Getting a Job

Interviewed with all of the major chemical companies. Connection to Thomas and Hochwalt at Monsanto through Elderfield. Got offers everywhere he interviewed. Desire to go west related to college road trip in 1936. Chose Dayton lab.

Dayton Laboratories

There for a year and a half. Very little work on war projects. Minor work on purifying explosives. Lab explosion in graduate school. Work on acetylene. Other Monsanto projects. Lax safety standards in labs during this time.

Move to St. Louis

Met his wife there. Initial work on plasticizers. Work on production of lignin vanillin.

Steroid Chemistry

Monsanto's interest in steroids. Company sponsored post-doc at Harvard. Woodward's personality. Lunches with Woodward and Brutcher. Life in Cambridge. Weekend trips to Rhode Island. Upjohn beat them to total steroid synthesis. Jealousy over Woodward's natural ability. Synthetic caffeine and Coca Cola.


Discussion of Woodward, education, and mutual acquaintances from Monsanto.

Monsanto in the Post War years

Shifts in management. Work on kinetics. Early hydrogenation work. Extracting Maltol from larch bark. Asymmetric hydrogenation. Gilbert Stork. Dealing with the patent office at Monsanto. Race to publish.


Discovered to be a good treatment for Parkinson's. Vanillin used to make L-dopa. Commercialization of the product. Difficulty convincing executives of that it's marketable. Difficulties publishing due to patent office. Consequences on follow up on L-dopa work.

Winning the Nobel Prize

How he believes he won. Secrecy surrounding selection process. 4:00 am phone call. No one at Monsanto could remember him. Importance of publishing first when it comes to the Nobel. International recognition and celebrity. People more aware of the Nobel than any other prize.

Industry and Academia

Difficulty of getting out a good paper from industrial labs. Change in lab dynamics. No longer need to make your own phosphines or compounds. Conferences as an industrial chemist.

Mass Production

Plant conversions. Quirks in the transition to large scale. Advantage provided by modern lab supply houses. Monsanto's domination of L-dopa market.

Nobel Prize

Still not sure of award selection process. Awarded for chirally catalyzed hydrogenation. Management of the prize. The award ceremony.

Monsanto Over the Years

What Monsanto has been. Lack of nepotism. Need for undirected research. Restructuring due to environmental concerns. Paying for the sins of the past. Prevalence of dioxin and benzene in the labswhich no one knew could be harmful.

Politics of the Nobel

The organizations that approach Nobel Laureates for sponsorship. Prevalence of European Americans as winners. Who gets left out and why. Reactions to the prize.


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.