William S. Knowles
The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.
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.
Monsanto Chemical Company
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 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.
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 US 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.
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.
Influx of Jewish scientists during the war years. What they did in New York. Racism. What was going on with the war effort.
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.
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.
Met his wife there. Initial work on plasticizers. Work on production of lignin vanillin.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Plant conversions. Quirks in the transition to large scale. Advantage provided by modern lab supply houses. Monsanto's domination of L-dopa market.
Still not sure of award selection process. Awarded for chirally catalyzed hydrogenation. Management of the prize. The award ceremony.
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.
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 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.