Vladimir Prelog

Born: July 23, 1906 | Sarajevo, YU
Died: January 7, 1998 | Zürich, CH

Vladimir Prelog reflects on his long and distinguished career as an organic chemist, from his formative years in Yugoslavia, his doctoral studies in Prague, his academic involvement at the Technical Faculty of the University of Zagreb, to his research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). At ETH, Prelog has worked with the chemistry of natural products and stereochemistry while collaborating with Cahn and Ingold to create the CIP system for defining absolute configuration. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0038
No. of pages: 38
Minutes: 130

Interview Sessions

Tonja A. Koeppel
17 January 1984
Zurich, Switzerland

Abstract of Interview

In this interview Vladimir Prelog discusses his long and distinguished career as an organic chemist. He begins by recalling his early education in Yugoslavia, doctoral studies in Prague, and first job as a chemist. He returned to Yugoslavia in 1935 to teach at the Technical Faculty of the University of Zagreb. The interview continues with Prelog describing how he finessed the problems of war and foreign occupation by emigrating to Switzerland, where he began a 35-year affiliation with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). The central portion of the interview contains Prelog's reflections on his research at the ETH. This includes work with the chemistry of natural products and with stereochemistry, and his creation (with Cahn and Ingold) of the CIP system for defining absolute configuration. The interview concludes with Prelog speaking about the growing complexity and expense of chemical research, his relationships with American chemists, his current research, and the future of chemistry and chemical education. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1929 Prague Institute of Technology DSc Chemistry

Professional Experience

Laboratory of G.J. Driza

1929 to 1935

Zagreb University

1935 to 1941
Lecturer and Associate Professor

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1942 to 1950
Lecturer and Associate Professor
1950 to 1976
1957 to 1965
Head, Laboratory of Organic Chemistry


Year(s) Award

Werner Medal and Prize, Swiss Chemical Society


Stas Medal, Belgian Chemical Society


Medal of Honor, Rice University


Marcel Benoist Prize, Switzerland


Hanus Medal, Czechoslovakian Chemical Society


A. W. von Hofmann Memorial Medal, German Chemical Society


Davy Medal, Royal Society of London


Roger Adams Award, American Chemical Society


Paul Karrer Award, University of Zürich


Nobel Prize for Chemistry


Paracelsus Medal


Order of the Yugoslavian Star


Order of the Rising Sun, Japan


Emil Votocek Medal, Chemical-Technical University, Prague

Table of Contents


Witnesses political events in Yugoslavia. Education in Zagreb. Early interest in chemistry. Publishes chemistry paper at age of fifteen. Father's occupation. Influence of history.

Studies in Prague at the Institute of Technology

Early chemical engineering. Personal philosophy of chemistry. Finishes studies in short time. Dissertation. Natural products chemistry. Stereochemistry.

Industrial Research and Academic Career

Preparation of compounds not commercially available. Quinine research. University of Zagreb. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Swiss Chemical Society. Helvetica Chimica Acta.

Natural Products Research

European chemists who emigrated to the United States. Organ extract research. Alkaloid research. Adamantane research. Robert Woodward. Creation of the Woodward Institute in Basel.

Research into Stereochemistry

Initial involvement. Collaboration with Cahn and Ingold. The CIP system. Conformations. Key people in stereochemistry.

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

Awarded Nobel Prize. Courses taught in organic chemistry. Administrative duties. Colleagues. Funding. Research. Collaboration among industry, research chemists, and microbiologists.

Reflections about the Field of Chemistry

Comparison of early and present periods. Relationships with American chemists. Current interests. Future of chemistry and chemical engineering. Preservation of letters and manuscripts.

About the Interviewer

Tonja A. Koeppel

Tonja A. Koeppel received a master’s degree in chemistry from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 1944. Since then she has written about chemistry, done research, and taught college chemistry. Dr. Koeppel is also a historian of chemistry. In 1973 she earned a PhD degree in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania. She is especially interested in the development of organic chemistry in the 19th and early 20th centuries.