James Burton Nichols

Born: February 25, 1902 | Danbury, CT, US
Died: July 14, 1995 | New Castle, DE, US

Raised primarily by his widowed mother, James Burton Nichols won scholarships to finance his studies of chemistry at Cornell University where he conducted a senior research project with Wilder D. Bancroft. Nichols went to Wisconsin where he was introduced to sedimentation techniques by a construction of a pioneer optical centrifuge and its use in pigment characterization, and he later was involved in the early development of the ultra-centrifuge. Nichols later had a long career at Du Pont, from applying ultracentrifugal techniques to industrial problems to contributing to the evolution of new instruments and polymer characterization. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0034
No. of pages: 83
Minutes: 180

Interview Sessions

Raymond C. Ferguson
14 and 16 January 1986
Wilmington, Delaware

Abstract of Interview

Born in Danbury, Connecticut, Burton Nichols was only a few months old when his father died. His mother then found employment in the local industry so as to support Nichols and his sister. Encouraged by the high school superintendent, Nichols won scholarships to help him through his undergraduate studies of chemistry at Cornell, where he completed a senior research project with Wilder D. Bancroft. At Bancroft's urging, Burton Nichols met Svedberg, who was then on his way to Wisconsin on sabbatical leave, and followed him to Madison. His introduction to sedimentation techniques was by construction of a pioneer optical centrifuge and its use in pigment characterization. Fellowships enabled the newly-married Nichols and his bride to go to Uppsala where he contributed to the early development of the ultra-centrifuge. Recollections of this period are followed by an account of his arrival at the DuPont Experimental Station to work in Kraemer's group, starting with the application of ultracentrifugal techniques to industrial problems. During his long career at DuPont, Nichols was involved in the evolution of new instruments and polymer characterization. The interview concludes with Nichols recalling colleagues, DuPont management and organization, as well as his professional society activities.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1923 Cornell University BS Chemistry
1924 University of Wisconsin, Madison MS Chemistry
1927 University of Wisconsin, Madison PhD Physical Chemistry

Professional Experience

E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

1927 to 1942
Research Chemist
1942 to 1953
Head, Physics Section
1953 to 1966
Supervisor, Physics and Analytical Division

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education

Early death of father, family background. Growing up in Danbury, Connecticut, influence of school superintendent. World War I.

Undergraduate Education

Cornell faculty. Senior project with Bancroft. Curriculum.

Graduate Studies

Wisconsin and Svedberg visit. Start of centrifuge development, particle size of pigments. Marraige and move to Uppsala. Life in Sweden. Svedberg and the ultracentrifuge, completion of doctoral dissertation.


Kraemer and appointment at DuPont. Colleagues. Pigment characterization.

Continuation of Interview

Polymer development and Hale Charch. Characterization by osmonetry, viscosity and light scattering. Instrument design and development, physics group and colleagues. Experimental Station in the thirties and forties, academic consultants. DuPont family. Professional society activities, Gordon conferences. Further recollections of DuPont organization and fellow workers.


About the Interviewer

Raymond C. Ferguson

Raymond C. Ferguson obtained his degrees in chemistry from Iowa State University (BS, MS) and Harvard University (PhD). He worked in research divisions of the Organic Chemicals, Elastomer Chemicals, and Central Research Departments of DuPont, principally in molecular spectroscopy, organic structure analysis, and polymer characterization. Currently he is affiliated with CONDUX, Inc., a consulting association of former DuPont professionals.