Rudolph A. Marcus

Born: July 21, 1923 | Montréal, QC, CA

Rudolph A. Marcus discusses his early life and education, including his time at McGill University, where he received a Ph.D. in chemistry and worked on World War II-related research with Carl Winkler, and at University of North Carolina, where in his postdoctoral research he began to focus on theory, specifically RRKM theory. Marcus also discusses his time as a professor at Brooklyn Polytechnic University, including his colleagues and his interest in electrostatics and polyelectrolytes, and his later position at University of Illinois. Marcus concludes his interview by speaking about his most current academic position at California Institute of Technology and his thoughts on his electron transfer work. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0097
No. of pages: 87
Minutes: 227

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
20 June 1991
California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California

Abstract of Interview

Rudolph Marcus begins the interview with a discussion of his family background and early education. Though he spent some of his early years in Detroit, Michigan, he primarily grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Montreal, Canada. Marcus was encouraged to continue his education by his parents and his uncles. He enrolled in the twelfth grade, the equivalent of the first year of college, to save money for the university. Marcus then attended McGill University, majoring in chemistry. He graduated with a B.Sc. in 1943. Due to the war, he was able to take his fourth year in the course of a summer. Marcus went directly to graduate school, also at McGill, and studied physical chemistry with Carl Winkler. His research, RDX, was determined by war needs, and he received his PhD in 1946. He spent an additional two and a half years on a National Research Council of Canada post-doc with Edward W. R. Steacie. In 1949, Marcus moved to the University of North Carolina, accepting a position with Oscar Rice, who had received an Office of Naval Research contract. It was there that Marcus began to focus on theory, particularly unimolecular and transition state theory. The result of this work was the development of the RRKM theory. In 1951, Marcus moved again, this time to Brooklyn Polytechnic University, where he became an assistant professor in the chemistry department. Marcus discusses his colleagues, including Herman Mark, Herbert Morawetz, and Charles Overberger, as well as the atmosphere of the institution. He became interested in electrostatics and polyelectrolytes. He also began some polymer research, and pursued work on electron transfer. In 1964, Marcus left Brooklyn Polytechnic for the University of Illinois. During his time there, he spent a few semesters at Oxford University as a visiting professor. In 1978, Marcus accepted a position at Caltech, where he began collaborating with Ahmed Zewail. His desire to pursue his research led him to decline administrative work. At Caltech, Marcus continued his electron transfer research. He concludes the interview with a discussion of his family, the challenges of research, and thoughts on his electron transfer work. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1943 McGill University BSc Chemistry
1946 McGill University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

National Research Council Canada

1944 to 1946
Research Staff Member, RDX Project
1946 to 1949
Junior Research Officer in Photochemistry

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

1949 to 1951
Postdoctoral Research Associate in Theoretical Chemistry

Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute

1951 to 1954
Assistant Professor of Physical Chemistry
1954 to 1958
Associate Professor of Physical Chemistry
1958 to 1964
Professor of Physical Chemistry

University of Illinois at Chicago

1964 to 1978
Professor of Physical Chemistry

California Institute of Technology

1978 to 1992
Arthur Amos Noyes Professor of Chemistry


Year(s) Award

Anne Molson Prize, McGill University


Senior Fulbright-Hayes Scholar, Fulbright Program


Senior U. S. Scientist Award, Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung Foundation


Irving Langmuir Award in Chemistry and Physics, American Chemical Society


The Electrochemical Society Lecture Award


Robinson Medal, Faraday Division of the Royal Society of Chemistry


Chandler Medal, Columbia University


DSc, honorary, University of Chicago


Wolf Prize in Chemistry


DSc, honorary, Polytechnic University


DSc, honorary, University of Göteborg, Sweden


Centenary Medal, Faraday Division of the Royal Society of Chemistry


DSc, honorary, McGill University, Canada


Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry, American Chemical Society


Willard Gibbs Medal, Chicago Section, American Chemical Society


National Medal of Science


Evans Award, Ohio State University


Theodore William Richards Medal, Northeastern Section, American


Edgar Fahs Smith Award, Philadelphia Section, American Chemical Society


Ira Remsen Memorial Award, Maryland Section, American Chemical Society


Pauling Medal, Portland, Oregon and Puget Sound Section, American Chemical Society


Nobel Prize in Chemistry


Hirschfelder Prize in Theoretical Chemistry, University of Wisconsin


DSc, honorary, University of New Brunswick, Canada


DSc, honorary, Queen's University, Canada


American Academy of Achievement Gold Plate Award


Lavoisier Medal, Sociéte Française de Chimie


DSc, honorary, University of Oxford, England


DSc, honorary, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


DSc, honorary, Yokohama National University, Japan


Auburn-Kosolapoff Award, Auburn Section, American Chemical Society


DSc, honorary, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Award in Theoretical Chemistry, American Chemical Society


Oesper Award, Cincinnati Section, American Chemical Society


DSc, honorary, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Israel


Top 75 Award, Chemical and Engineering News, American Chemical Society

Table of Contents

Early Life and Education

Family background. Influence of uncles. Growing up in Canada. Interest in education.

College Years

Attending McGill. Influence of mother. Financing higher education. Research with Carl Winkler. Interest in kinetics. Decision to attend graduate school. Work on RDX.

Postdoctoral Research

Working with Edward W. R. Steacie. Growing fascination with theory. Working with Oscar Rice at the University of North Carolina. Office of Naval Research contract. Development of RRKM theory. Colleagues.

Brooklyn Polytechnic University

Office of Naval Research contract. Electrostatics. Colleagues. Atmosphere in department. Polymer work. Interest in polyelectrolytes. Experimental work on electron transfer. Ion exchange resins. Flash photolysis. Boron hydrides. Unimolecular processes. NSF senior postdoctoral fellowship. Relationship between experiment and theory.

University of Illinois

Decision to leave Brooklyn Poly. Teaching graduate courses. Visiting professor at Oxford University.

California Institute of Technology

Work with Ahmed Zewail. Declining administrative work. Desire to continue research. Electron transfer research. Two-site behavior in photosynthesis. Long range electron transfer. Collaborators.


Children. Interest in history. Electrochemical hydrogen evolution. Transition state theory. Challenges of research. Thoughts on electron transfer research. Awards.


About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.