Ronald D. Macfarlane

Born: February 21, 1933 | Buffalo, NY, US

Ronald Macfarlane was born in Buffalo, New York. Macfarlane attended the University of Buffalo, majoring in analytical chemistry before entering Carnegie Institute of Technology for a PhD. He accepted a postdoctoral position at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working on alpha activity in rare earth elements. Macfarlane accepted a job at McMaster University where he accidentally created a more efficient way to get ionized particles, which he named the “helium jet recoil method.” Recruited by Arthur Martell, Macfarlane joined the new chemistry department at Texas A&M as a professor. Macfarlane’s work on nuclear chemistry eventually led to an incidental discovery on what became known as 252californium plasma desorption mass spectrometry. Leaving nuclear chemistry to concentrate on mass spectrometry, Macfarlane spent fifteen years developing the first method to characterize the mass of large, fragile biomolecules, which quickly became well known and widely used to characterize a wide spectrum of biomolecules especially in the pharmacy and medicine fields. Macfarlane continues to teach analytical chemistry his way, incorporating constructivism, conceptual learning, and other elements of educational psychology.

Access This Interview

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0877
No. of pages: 106
Minutes: 242

Interview Sessions

Michael A. Grayson
26 May 2011
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

Abstract of Interview

Ronald Macfarlane was born in Buffalo, New York, the oldest of three children. An excellent teacher in high school sparked his interest in chemistry, and Macfarlane attended the University of Buffalo, majoring in analytical chemistry. He found coursework rather boring, but relished exciting summer jobs in chemical industries. Nuclear chemistry was just getting started, and Macfarlane entered Carnegie Institute of Technology for a PhD. In Truman Kohman’s lab, he researched natural radioactivity. He made a kind of giant Geiger counter, which he published to international praise. Next, he accepted a postdoctoral position at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working on alpha activity in rare earth elements. After accidentally creating a more efficient way to get ionized particles; he discovered new isotopes for years, saving his discoveries for later publication. Macfarlane accepted a job at McMaster University. There, he named his accidental creation the “helium jet recoil method” and began publishing data he’d stored up. He visited the Soviet Union, where he met John McIntyre, a physics professor at Texas A&M University. Months later, Arthur Martell, chairman of the new chemistry department at Texas A&M, called to recruit Macfarlane, and he took up a full professorship there. The Atomic Energy Commission funded Macfarlane’s nuclear work for a while but ceased after an incidental discovery during one of his nuclear chemistry experiments led to what became known as 252californium plasma desorption mass spectrometry. Macfarlane left the nuclear chemistry field to concentrate on mass spectrometry. He spent fifteen years developing the method that was the first to characterize the mass of large, fragile biomolecules—a method that quickly became well known and widely used to characterize a wide spectrum of biomolecules especially in the pharmacy and medicine fields. Early in the course of the discovery, he obtained National Institutes of Health funding to develop and expand the methodology. As one discovery led to another, his focus drilled down to another new field involving characterization of unusual lipids. He believed in “letting nature tell [a person] what is going on;” this approach has led to his interest in trying to determine who has cardiovascular disease and which components of his or her lipid profile contribute to the disease. One of the most important discoveries involved the characterization of an atherogenic type of the good cholesterol associated with APOC-1 (apolipoprotein C1), using both mass spectrometry and some of the novel platforms his lab developed to characterize lipoproteins. At the time of this interview, Macfarlane, age seventy-eight, was still unready to retire. Having thrown out the textbook in favor of his own “commentaries,” he continued to teach analytical chemistry his way, incorporating constructivism, conceptual learning, and other elements of educational psychology. Using blood samples from actual patients Macfarlane continued his work on cardiovascular disease. He believes that a person should contribute to the betterment of society, which he thinks he has done. His work, which has received nearly continuous funding, has straddled the boundary between applied and pure science, and he has always wished he could return to “real science.” Macfarlane concludes the interview by saying that his colleagues over the years have been supportive and gracious; most of his collaborations have worked equitably; he has tried to mentor his students while fostering their own creativity. Macfarlane’s advice to young scientists is to listen to nature and to pay attention to small details.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1954 University of Buffalo BA Chemistry
1957 Carnegie Institute of Technology MS Chemistry
1959 Carnegie Institute of Technology PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

1959 to 1962
Postdoctoral Fellow

McMaster University

1962 to 1965
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
1965 to 1967
Associate Professor of Chemistry

Texas A&M University

1967 to 2008
Professor of Chemistry
2008 to 2019
University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry

Honors

Year(s) Award
1969

J. Simon Guggenheim Fellow, Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen

1974

Visiting Faculty, Center for Nuclear Research, Strasbourg, France

1974

Visiting Faculty, Phillips University, Marburg, Germany

1981

Visiting Faculty, University of Uppsala, Sweden

1982

University of Paris, Orsay, France

1984

Texas A&M Faculty Distinguished Achievement Award for Research

1989

American Chemical Society Award in Nuclear Chemistry

1991

American Society for Mass Spectrometry Distinguished Achievement Award (Inaugural Award)

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born in Buffalo, New York, oldest of three children. Father bookkeeper. Amateur chemistry lab in basement; making pipe bombs. Excellent high school chemistry teacher.

College and Postgraduate Years
5

Attended University of Buffalo, majoring in analytical chemistry. Classes boring, but enjoyed summer jobs in chemical industries. Beginnings of nuclear chemistry. Entered Carnegie Institute of Technology for PhD. Truman Kohman’s lab, researching natural radioactivity. Making giant Geiger counter. Postdoctoral position at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working on alpha activity in rare earth elements. Accidentally created better way to get ionized particles; discovered new isotopes for years.

Early Career
13

Moving to McMaster University. Wife and two children. Inventing ‘helium jet recoil method; publishing stored-up data; international recognition. Developing part-time research program at Yale University. Visiting Soviet Union; meeting John McIntyre of Texas A&M. Later recruited to Texas A&M by Arthur Martell. Wife’s multiple sclerosis worsening; move to Texas.

Texas A&M University
19

Using mass spectrometry on cystine and arginine; talk at Stanford University. Californium. Funding from National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). Glenn Seaborg and Guggenheim Fellowship. Fifteen years of running samples for drug companies. Using time-of-flight; not accepted by other mass spectrometry people. MALDI, electrospray, FAB mass spec; ‘purists’’ belief: no magnet, no mass spec.

Moving into Medical Research
32

Second wife attends medical school. Using chemical mass spec on medical research. NIH funding for heart disease screening using analytical chemistry; who has cardiovascular disease and what components of lipid profile contribute; not approved of by medical community. Publishing APOC-1; lipoprotein profiles dynamic. Discussion of different mass spec techniques. Using Texas A&M generations of graduates for screening.

Observations
46

Philosophy of education. Funding. Straddling divide between applied and pure science. APOC-1 conclusions published immediately; patent application already accepted. Dropped by Welch Foundation, which funds only pure science. Mentoring style. Publishing success. Helium jet recoil method his most important contribution. Beta-neutrino correlation. Friction with medical school and chemistry department. Politics between University and Health Science Center.

Teaching Philosophy and Methods
59

Teaching analytical chemistry; class in analytical chemistry with applied physical chemistry. Importance of educational psychology. Conceptual learning added to his teaching. Getting rid of the textbook; using own commentaries, feedback from students; competition among groups of students. Conceptual learning now accepted in medical school curricula. Only seventy-eight years old, not ready to retire.

General Thoughts
70

Patents. Collaboration with Johns Hopkins University on umbilical cord research; results stolen. Wishes for research park, bench-to-bed science. Wife’s networking; her work in cardiology and lipid management. Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocols, NIH certification. Henry Fales. Applying mass spec to other fields. Pioneering mass spec techniques; teaching new scientists about mass spec’s history. His publications and coauthors. Desire to return to ‘real science.’ Most publicity from early Science article on californium. Surface ionization mass spectrometry (SIMS) and Kenneth Standing. Fast atom bombardment (FAB) ionization and Michael Barber. Colleagues supportive, congenial. Students original thinkers. Nobel Prize for John Fenn. Opened new field of heavy ion reactions involving influence of spin. Need to pay attention to small details and let nature tell one what is what.

Index
104

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.