William F. Little

Born: November 11, 1929 | Hickory, NC, US
Died: February 27, 2009 | Chapel Hill, NC, US

William F. Little discusses his early life in a small town and education, including his discovery of chemistry at Lenoir-Rhyne College, where he received a bachelor's degree in mathematics, biology, and chemistry, and his graduate studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Little received an M.S. in physical chemistry and Ph.D. in organic chemistry. Little recalls his lengthy career at a few institutions: North Carolina, where Little began as a professor and later, as chairman of the chemistry department, revised the curriculum and got a new laboratory built; the Research Triangle Foundation, where Little helped establish the Research Triangle Park. Additionally little recalls his various administrative responsibilities and assesses his career in North Carolina. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0351
No. of pages: 47
Minutes: 306

Interview Sessions

Arthur Daemmrich and Arnold Thackray
5 January 2007
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Abstract of Interview

William F. Little was born and grew up in Hickory, North Carolina, a small town in the western part of the state. His father had five children by his first wife and four by his second. Little, Senior, was a professor of languages and provost at Lenoir-Rhyne College until the economics of nine children forced him to go to work for a savings and loan, of which he eventually became CEO. William loved living in a small town, and he loved his early teachers. He had no chemistry classes in high school, as the school was too small, but he had physics and biology. In college he discovered chemistry. A brother, a sister, and two nephews also went into chemistry. He attended Lenoir-Rhyne College, majoring in mathematics, biology, and chemistry. He loved chemistry and wanted to stay a chemist rather than going to medical school. During the Korean Conflict, James Morehead III established what was then the Morehead Scholarships. Because graduate students could be drafted Morehead gave his first eight awards to graduate students, one of whom was Little. Little entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a student in physical chemistry, but after finishing his Master's degree, he switched to organic chemistry for his PhD, which he also received from the University of North Carolina. He paid for his own postdoc at University College London, where he was interested in aromatic nitration. While he was in London Reed University hired him to teach. After a year there, studying apocynol, he was wooed back to North Carolina. During his first year on the faculty he was persuaded to join the Research Triangle Foundation, which was attempting to establish a large park for research entities. He spent summers and chemical society meetings recruiting companies to expand into the Triangle; he ended up with an extensive network of business and banking leaders in the state and was a very successful marketer. Because there was an intermingling of University interests with those of the Park, the University gave Little a new post as Vice Chancellor of Research Administration. After several years in that position Little became chairman of the chemistry department. In that position he brought in a large number of faculty and new students; he revised the curriculum; he got a new chemistry laboratory built; he overrode the University's policy of equal pay raises and established pay for merit. After five years there, he became head of the Research, Development, and Public Service Office, helping originate a university-wide capital funds drive that exceeded its goal. Little's long career has included a number of board memberships and many awards; but this career has always remained entwined with the Research Triangle Park Foundation and its Selection Committee; with the University of North Carolina, both its administration and its chemistry department; with the leaders of North Carolina's government and business communities; with individual faculty members; and, to a much lesser extent, to the chemistry where it all began. As he is fond of saying, “whenever I was asked to do anything I would salute the quarterdeck” to serve the North Carolina he loved. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1950 Lenoir--Rhyne College BS Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics
1952 University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill MS Physical Chemistry
1954 University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill PhD Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

Reed College

1955 to 1956

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

1956 to 1957
1957 to 1961
Assistant Professor
1959 to 1961
Associate Dean, Graduate School for Research Administration
1961 to 1965
Associate Professor
1965 to 1970
Chairman, Department of Chemistry
1965 to 1977
1972 to 1973
Chairman, Division of the Natural Sciences
1973 to 1978
Vice Chancellor, Development and Public Service
Initial Registered Agent, The Arts and Sciences Foundation
1975 to 1979
Vice President, The Arts and Sciences Foundation
1977 to 1996
University Distinguished Professor
Acting Executive Director, The Arts and Sciences Foundation
1991 to 1992
Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor, Academic Affairs
1992 to 1996
Senior Vice President and Vice President, Academic Affairs

The Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina

1957 to 1958
Associate Director, Chemistry
1987 to 2002
Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board
1990 to 2008
Corporate Secretary

Research Triangle Institute

1968 to 1977
Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board
1998 to 2003
Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board

Triangle Universities Center for Advanced Studies, Inc.

1975 to 1982
Vice President
1982 to 1987

The John Motley Morehead Foundation

1978 to 1989
Chairman, Central Selection Committee


Year(s) Award
1951 to 1954

Morehead Scholarship, University of North Carolina


Outstanding Alumnus Award, Lenoir-Rhyne College


Thomas Jefferson Award, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Doctor of Science Honorary Degree, Lenoir-Rhyne College


Order of the Golden Fleece (honorary), The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Marcus E. Hobbs Distinguished Service Award, American Chemical Society, North Carolina Section


Sam Ragan Award for Contributions to the Arts in North Carolina


Faculty Service Award, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Alumni Association


Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina


Medicinal Chemistry Building at Research Triangle Institute named W. F. Little Laboratories


Last road in Research Triangle Park named Little Drive

Table of Contents

Early Years

Born and raised in Hickory, North Carolina; family's involvement in chemistry and education; Little's love of small-town life; segregation in the South; discussion of beginnings of Research Triangle Park.

College Years

Matriculated at Lenoir-Rhyne College; considered Duke University's combined B.S. and MD degree, but decided against medicine when interviewers lit up cigars; discussion of state colleges and technical institutes in North Carolina system; facilities in undergraduate chemistry laboratory; inspiring professors; majors in mathematics, chemistry,and biology.

Graduate and Postgraduate Years

Enters University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on one of the first year of Morehead Scholarships; discussion of James Motley Morehead III and the Morehead Scholarships; completes a Master's degree in physical chemistry but switches to organic chemistry for his Ph.D. ; William Kenan's discovery of acetylene gas at the University of North Carolina, and his ties to James Morehead; founding of Union Carbide Corporation. Had a one-year postdoc at University College London, where he was interested in aromatic nitration.

Early Faculty Years

Spent one year co-teaching a class at Reed University. Interested there in apocynol. Recruited back to University of North Carolina. Worked there on ferrocene, which led to interest in organometallic chemistry. Worked on analogs of Vitamin B12.

Research Triangle Park

Asked to help establish Research Triangle Park. Spent two years recruiting companies to expand into RTP. First induced Research Triangle Institute, then Chemstrand Corporation to join Park. Discusses importance of county identity in North Carolina.


Became Vice Chancellor of Research Administration under the dean of the graduate school; gained extensive knowledge of all parts of University. Next, five years as Chairman of chemistry department, where he oversaw huge growth, revised curriculum, built a new building, won a Science Development Grant, established term limits on chairmanship, established merit pay. Spent five years as head of Research, Development, and Public Service Office, where he established University-wide capital funds drive, and exceeded the goal.


Sacrifice of his own chemistry career. Future of academic chemistry. Discussion of screening companies that enter the Park; zoning into research and research applications. Relationship of Park with the University of North Carolina; relationship with individual faculty members; relationship with Research Triangle Park Foundation; relationship with North Carolina government. Responsibilities of Foundation; change expected change when remaining 10% of land is sold; renovation of existing Park facilities. Helping other North Carolina areas develop their own parks. Foundation's profits of $40–50 million used to support joint programs of University of North Carolina, Duke University, and North Carolina State University.


About the Interviewer

Arthur Daemmrich

Arthur Daemmrich is an assistant professor in the Business, Government, and International Economy Unit at Harvard Business School and a senior research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. His research examines science, medicine, and the state, with a focus on advancing theories of risk and regulation through empirical research on the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and chemical sectors. At HBS he also plays an active role in an interdisciplinary Healthcare Initiative, advancing scholarship and developing applied lessons for the business of creating and delivering health services and health-related technologies. Daemmrich was previously the director of the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He earned a PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell University in 2002 and has held fellowships at the Social Science Research Council/Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He has published widely on pharmaceutical and chemical regulation, biotechnology business and policy, innovation, and history of science.

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.