Fred W. McLafferty

Born: May 11, 1923 | Evanston, IL, US

McLafferty discusses his upbringing as he continued his education in chemistry in an accelerated degree program at the University of Nebraska during World War II. Having enlisted in the war and after months of combat, McLafferty returned to Nebraska to earn his Master's degree and later his doctoral degree at Cornell University. Shifting his interests to organic chemistry, he entered industry at the Dow Chemical Company where he was introduced to mass spectrometry, a field that figures prominently in much of McLafferty's collaborations and scientific work. Eventually, he moved into academia, teaching and researching at Purdue University and then Cornell University. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0352
No. of pages: 175
Minutes: 326

Interview Sessions

Michael A. Grayson
22-23 January 2007
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

Abstract of Interview

Fred W. McLafferty's oral history begins with a discussion of his family's history of education and his early life in Nebraska during the Great Depression. Sparked by a high school chemistry class, McLafferty decided to pursue the subject at the University of Nebraska. Because his undergraduate career coincided with World War II, McLafferty entered an accelerated degree program and enlisted in the war. After months of combat, he returned for graduate work at Nebraska, where he earned his Master's degree and published papers as an analytical chemist. After moving to Cornell University to pursue his doctorate degree, his interest shifted to organic chemistry and his work on organofluorine compounds began. In 1950, after completing his degree, McLafferty entered industry at the Dow Chemical Company in Michigan, where he was introduced to mass spectrometry. There, McLafferty and Roland Gohlke helped develop instrumentation and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. After several years, McLafferty was sent by Dow to Boston, Massachusetts to direct its new research lab. There he worked on patents and the McLafferty rearrangements in mass spectracorrelations and utilized time-of-flight. In his oral history, McLafferty speaks often of the community and meetings of mass spectrometrists, and how he has collaborated and interacted with this community in the past fifty years. In 1964 he left Dow for an academic position at Purdue University, where he created a new research program. He continued his collaboration with Gohlke and also started collaborating with Klaus Biemann on topics such as collisional activation and gas chromatography. While at Purdue, McLafferty consulted for companies like Dow and Hitachi, and began securing grant money for research. After four years at Purdue University, he became Peter J. W. Debye Professor of Chemistry at Cornell University. McLafferty discusses his longtime position at Cornell University, which has allowed him both to publish landmark works and to develop techniques like electron capture dissociation and top down proteomics, and his most recent research work, which has included published papers on the use of ammonium tartrate and succinate in electrospray solution. McLafferty concludes his interview by discussing his impressions and remembrances of his long list of peers. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1943 University of Nebraska BS Chemistry
1947 University of Nebraska MS
1950 Cornell University PhD

Professional Experience

University of Iowa

Post-Doctorate under Ralph Shriner

Dow Chemical Company

1950 to 1956
In charge of mass spectrometry and gas chromatography
1956 to 1964
First Director of Eastern Research Laboratory, Basic Research

Purdue University

1964 to 1968
Professor of Chemistry

Cornell University

1968 to 2008
Professor of Chemistry


Year(s) Award

American Chemical Society Award in Chemical Instrumentation


Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh Award


American Chemical Society Award in Analytical Chemistry


Honorary DSc degree, University of Nebraska


New York Section- American Chemical Society Nichols Gold Medal


International Mass Spectrometry Society J. J. Thomson Gold Medal


Cincinnati Section- American Chemical Society Oesper Award


The Association of Analytical Chemistry Award


East Tennessee Section- American Chemical Society S. C. Lind Award


Ohio State University W. L. Evans Award


Honorary DSc degree, The University of Liège


University of Naples Gold Medal


American Chemical Society Award in Mass Spectrometry


Royal Society of Chemists Robert Boyle Gold Medal


Pioneer in Analytical Instrumentation Award


Honorary DSc degree, Purdue University


American Institute of Chemistry Chemical Pioneer Award


Utrecht University J. M. Bijvoet Medal


Czech Academy of Sciences J. Heyrovsky Medal


Italian Chemical Society G. Natta Gold Medal


Swedish Chemical Society Torbern Bergman Medal


American Society of Mass Spectrometry Award for Distinguished Contributions to Mass Spectrometry


French Chemical Society Lavoisier Medal


International Association of Protein Structure Analysis and Proteomics Pehr Edman Award

Table of Contents


Family's history of college education. Life in rural Nebraska during Great Depression. High school chemistry.

College Education

University of Nebraska. Agricultural school and land grants. ROTC and Officer Candidate School. Accelerated bachelor's plan in chemistry. World War II combat and awards. Analytical chemistry.

Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Research

"University of Nebraska, master's degree. Publishing papers. Cornell University, doctorate work. Organofluorine compounds research. Organic chemistry. University of Iowa post-doctoral research with Ralph Shriner.

The Dow Chemical Company

Introduction to mass spectrometry. Early instrumentation. The petroleum industry. Solving problems of the physical research lab. The Gordon Research Conference and gas chromatography. The Bersworth Chemical Company. Directing new Boston research lab. Patenting. Publishing. Mass Spectra Correlations.

The Community of Mass Spectrometrists

Sybil Rock. Uncertified Spectra Committee. The research community at Dow. John Beynon. Family.

Principal Investigator

Purdue University. Creating new research program at Purdue University. Carl Djerassi. Klaus Biemann. Time-of-flight and direct probes. Roland Gohlke. Consulting for Dow and Hitachi. Reverse geometry. Cornell University. Babu Venkataraghaven. Perkin Elmer dispute. Collisional activation.

Mass Spectrometry Research

Early American Society for Testing and Materials community cooperation. First electrospray with Fourier Transform Mass Spectrometry. Landmark papers. Competition with National Institute of Standards and Technology. Interpretation of Mass Spectra. Electron ionization. Electron capture dissociation. Top down proteomics.

Recent Research

Cornell University. Ammonium tartrate and succinate. Carsten Reinhardt's Shifting and Rearranging. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Conferences and meetings. Impressions of various notable peers.


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.