Harold M. McNair

Born: May 31, 1933 | Miami, AZ, US

Harold McNair grew up in Miami, Arizona, one of two sons. His parents worked in the local copper mines; they were not highly educated, but they valued education and encouraged Harold. He did well in school but also loved sports, playing tennis especially well. He attended the University of Arizona where he majored in chemistry and minored in physics. McNair entered Purdue University's PhD program and worked in industry during the summers. Fascinated by instrumentation, he met A. J. P. Martin at Amoco and cemented his interest in gas chromatography (GC). At a GC meeting J. J. Van Deemter encouraged him to build Purdue's first gas chromatograph. McNair's next stop was Eindhoven, the Netherlands, for a Fulbright Scholarship, working with A. I. M. Keulemans. He returned to the United States to a job at Esso, studying rocket fuels for the US Department of Defense. In addition to his regular duties McNair wrote Basic  Gas Chromatography. After a year he left Esso for F&M Scientific, and they moved back to Amsterdam. After three years McNair went to Varian, Inc. , to be director of European operations. McNair was recruited by two of his former Purdue professors to take a professorship at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). With some of his students McNair established COLACRO (Congress in Latin America about Chromatography), which has taught short courses and introduced GC into almost all of the countries in Latin America. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0831
No. of pages: 154
Minutes: 342

Interview Sessions

Michael A. Grayson
6-7 November 2011
Blacksburg, Virginia

Abstract of Interview

Harold M. McNair grew up in Miami, Arizona, one of two sons. His parents worked in the local copper mines; they were not highly educated, but they valued education and encouraged Harold. He did well in school but also loved sports, playing tennis especially well. He won a tennis scholarship, Elks Club award, and a Phelps Dodge Scholarship to the University of Arizona where he majored in chemistry and minored in physics. He found his professors very challenging and interested in their students. McNair won more honors, including being a Rhodes Scholar alternate. McNair entered Purdue University's PhD program and continued to work in industry during the summers. Fascinated by instrumentation, he met A. J. P. Martin at Amoco and cemented his interest in gas chromatography (GC). At a GC meeting J. J. Van Deemter encouraged him to build Purdue's first gas chromatograph. McNair's next stop was Eindhoven, the Netherlands, for a Fulbright Scholarship, working with A. I. M. Keulemans. In addition to learning a great deal he met his future wife. He returned to the United States to a job at Esso, studying rocket fuels for the US Department of Defense. In addition to his regular duties McNair wrote Basic Gas Chromatography. After a year he left Esso for F&M Scientific, and they moved back to Amsterdam. There they had three successful years before McNair went to Varian, Inc., to be director of European operations. The next four years were spent in California, with frequent travel to Europe, now with three children. McNair was recruited by two of his former Purdue professors to take a professorship at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). While continuing his regular teaching and research, he expanded the short course program he had begun at Varian. The quality of life and science at Virginia Tech persuaded him to remain there rather than return to industry as he had originally planned. With some of his students McNair established COLACRO (Congress in Latin America about Chromatography), which has taught short courses and introduced GC into almost all of the countries in Latin America. Although he is retired now he continues to teach an occasional short course and to do some work on bomb residues for the FBI. He is also interested in food science and is working on a study of the relationship between cows' diets and milk. McNair remains extremely enthusiastic about separation science, especially GC, which he says is still an important tool of analysis, especially in the biomedical and health fields. He discusses the evolution of instrumentation in GC, talks about liquid chromatography, and praises both his mentors and his students. He gives his wife much credit for her help, especially with foreign students. He is proudest of his supernetwork, "McNair's Mafia," from undergraduates through colleagues. He believes that his most significant contribution is his Basic Gas Chromatography. He says that among the pioneers of GC, A. J. P. Martin, Steve Dal Nogare, and A. I. M. Keulemans were his most important mentors; they taught him chemistry but also how to live and laugh. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1955 University of Arizona BS Chemistry
1957 Purdue University MS Analytical Chemistry
1959 Purdue University PhD Analytical Chemistry

Professional Experience

Eindhoven Technical University

1960
Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow

Esso Research and Engineering Company

1960
Research Chemist

Hewlett-Packard Company

1961 to 1964
Technical Director and General Manager, F&M Scientific Division

Varian Associates, Inc.

1967 to 1971
Director of International Relations, Aerograph Division

Virginia Polytechnic Institute

1968 to 1971
Associate Professor of Chemistry
1971 to 2002
Professor of Chemistry
1990 to 1992
Department Head, Chemistry Department
2002 to 2012
Professor Emeritus

Honors

Year(s) Award
1951 to 1955

University of Arizona, Phelps Dodge Scholarship

1951 to 1955

University of Arizona, Dean's List

1955

University of Arizona, Freeman Medal (Outstanding Male Graduate, 1955)

1955

University of Arizona, President's Scholarship Cup

1955

University of Arizona, Merck Chemistry Award

1955 to 1959

Purdue University, President, Phi Lambda Upsilon, member Sigma Xi; Procter and Gamble Research Fellowship

1960

Perkin-Elmer Fellowship, Eindhoven Technical University Fellowship

1972

Honorary Membership, O. D. K. , Va. Tech Chapter

1975

I. R. -100 Award Winner; Co-inventor of Cira GC/IR System

1976

Fisk Medal, Fisk University for ten years' service in teaching short courses at Fisk

1976

Fellowship from Troisième Cycle" of Swiss Universities for a Visiting Professorship at the University of Neuchatel, Neuchatel, Switzerland

1977

One joint paper with former student received NASA Langley Research Center H. J. E. Reid Award for NASA research recognition (more than four hundred reprint requests).

1979

Chosen United National Consultant to Graduate Programs in Analytical Chemistry in Brazilian Academy of Sciences Committee to Review Analytical Chemistry Programs at NBS (three years)

1981

Philips Electronics Fellowship for research study leave, Eindhoven Technical University, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

1982

Certificate of Appreciation from The American Industrial Hygiene Association for support of training programs, A. I. H. Conference

1983

VaTech Alumni Teaching Award:, Outstanding Undergraduate Teacher First awardee (out of 1200 faculty members)

1986

Colacro Gold Medal for outstanding contributions to Chromatography in Latin America, Rio de Janeiro

1989

Eastern Analytical Symposium Award in Chromatography

1990

HP Corporate Gift, for Chromatographic Research

1990

Science Advisor, Research Labs, R. J. Reynolds, Winston Salem, NC

1991

K. P. Dimick Award in Chromatography

1991

Special Achievement Award, ACS, 25 years of short courses

1993

Twsett Medal of Chromatography, Russian Academy of Sciences, Riva del Garde

1994

Honorary Faculty Member, School of Pharmacy, University of Concepción, Concepción, Chile

1997

“Merit Award In Chromatography” from the Chicago Chromatography, Discussion Group

1998

Invited by the Swedish Academy of Sciences to nominate for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2000

Analytical Division of ACS, J. C. Giddings for Outstanding Contributions to Education

2001

Stephen Dal Nogare Award, Pittsburgh Conference, March 2001, Outstanding Contributions to Separation Science

2003

Horváth Medal, Connecticut Separation, Science Council

2004

Easter Analytical Society, Award in Analytical Chemistry

2008

Outstanding Alumni Award, Dept. of Chemistry, University of Arizona

2009

Lifetime Achievement Award in Chromatography, LC/GC Magazine, Pittsburgh Conference

Table of Contents

Biographical Information
1

Grew up in Miami, Arizona; one older brother. Family background. Parents uneducated but regarded education as important. Loved sports as well as school; very good tennis player. No money for college.

College Years
6

Phelps Dodge Scholarship, tennis scholarship, Elks Club award; chose University of Arizona. Gave up tennis to concentrate on studies. Chemistry major, physics minor. Class routine and curriculum. Also liked political science and anthropology. Professors very good and interested in teaching. Speaks number of languages. Phi Beta Kappa as junior, as well as other honors. Rhodes Scholar alternate. Summer employment in copper mines. Phillips Petroleum for summer after graduation.

Graduate School and Postgraduate Years
18

Chose Purdue University on Alec Kelley's recommendation; very good offer. Culture shock; weather. School difficult and competitive. Worked summers in industry - Phillips; American Cyanamid; Amoco; DuPont; Esso - fascinated by instrumentation. Master's thesis on coulometry. Met A. J. P. Martin at Amoco; cemented desire to work in gas chromatography (GC). Learned to make tea. Met J. J. Van Deemter at gas chromatography (GC) meeting; built Purdue's first gas chromatograph. Probably first PhD thesis on GC in United States. Fulbright Scholarship to Technische Universiteit in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Studied with A. I. M. Keulemans. Developed TRIS. Became assistant professor, taught in Dutch. Met Marijke, future wife. Some anecdotes about DuPont, Stephen Dal Nogare, founding of F&M Scientific, Marcel Golay, James Lovelock. Flame-ionization detector. Capillary columns. Sir Dennis Desty. Fused silica. Report for Fulbright.

Settling Down
58

Began permanent job with Esso. Married Marijke. Worked on rocket fuels for US Department of Defense. Helped F&M make flame ionization detectors for Esso. Several publications. Wrote textbook, Basic Gas Chromatography. Turned down promotion to management at Esso; left for F&M Scientific to be technical director in Europe. Settled in Amsterdam, set up sales forces around Europe. Left F&M to become director of European operations at Varian, Inc. Beginning of liquid chromatography (LC). Moved back to California, travelled to Europe often. Also developed market in Western Hemisphere. Began teaching short courses as marketing tool; expanded into United States. Four years at Varian.

Back to Academia
81

Warren Brandt and Alan Clifford, both on his committee at Purdue, now at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech); offered him job. Non-compete clause complications; taught short courses. Courses in GC most useful to industry; then government; academia; no biomedical applications until liquid chromatography. Developed Pellisieve. Andrei Kiselev and Yuri Kazakevich. Term for chromatographies now separation science. Micellar electrokinetic chromatography (MEKC); electrophoresis; James Jorgenson and Henry Rasmussen. How capillary zone electrophoresis (CZE) works. Jeff Bowermaster invented temperature-programmed LC. Several groups working on LC. Quality of life and scholarship at Virginia Tech.

Some General Reminiscences
97

Funding. Good relationship with US Food and Drug Agency. Taught at Federal Bureau of Investigation; worked on bomb residues. Mainly worked on drugs of abuse. Dramatic increase in number of women in chemistry. Retired; research money used up. Still teaches short courses, still does some backup for bomb work. Consortium with other schools. Special connection with Latin America; summers in Mexico City, Mexico; also has taught short courses in most Latin American countries. Marijke's important role in aiding foreign students. Coinventor of CIRA, a GC-infrared system. Established COLACRO, like PittCon, highly successful. Many awards. Asked to nominate someone for Nobel Prize.

More Thoughts
126

Innovation: GC first; then capillary columns; digital electronic integrators; high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC); bonded phases for pharmaceutical products; CZE. In his group: liquid phases; detectors. Landmark publication: polynuclear aromatic compounds by HPLC. Better limits of detection; improved detectors and methodology. Bowermaster's temperature-programmed LC. Importance of increased precision and automation. GC probably nearly all developed but not necessarily simple.

Summing Up
129

Working with small group on diets of cows and quality of milk. Still teaches some short courses with Lee Polite. Proud of his many students; glad to have had undergraduates. McNair's Mafia: supernetwork. Decline of chemistry. Most significant contribution his text, Basic GC. Description of columns. Discussion of being department chair. Pioneers of GC: Martin, Keulemans, Golay, Desty, R. P. W. Scott; Dal Nogare; Lovelock. All brilliant, but all splendid people, inspired him to pass on knowledge. Mentoring in good living as well as importance of chemistry. Evolution of instrumentation. Future of separation science assured: many difficult problems, especially now in biomedicine and food and health.

Index
149

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.