John D. Roberts

Born: June 8, 1918 | Los Angeles,

John Roberts discusses his upbringing and the impact of Caltech on his interests in chemistry, and goes to describe his studies at UCLA, his brief time at Penn State, and his research at Harvard on the National Research Council Fellowship. Having become acquainted with Cope and other faculty members at MIT, Roberts eventually left MIT for a position at Caltech.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 69
No. of pages: 73
Minutes: 270

Interview Sessions

24 April, 14 June 1987

Abstract of Interview

John Roberts begins the interview with a discussion of his family background. He recounts his early interest in chemistry and his experiences assisting junior high and high school science teachers. He also mentions the impact of Caltech on his interest in chemistry. He than describes his undergraduate years at UCLA, which included a great deal of research and teaching experience. After a brief period at Penn State, he returned to UCLA for graduate school and continued research. He then went to Harvard on National Research Council Fellowship. He recalls fondly his relationship with Cope and other faculty members at MIT, and details his accomplishments there; he also comments on MIT's physical plant, facilities, administration, and general atmosphere. After describing much of his research, he concludes by expressing a bit of guilt for leaving MIT when he did, but he also remembers his excitement in accepting a position at Caltech, to which it seems he had always aspired.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
2016 B.A. Chemistry
2016 Ph.D. Chemistry


Year(s) Award

Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences


American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry


Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences


Harrison Howe Award, Rochester Section, ACS


Dr. rer. nat. hon. caus. , University of Munich


Dr. Sci. , Temple University


Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry, ACS


UCLA Alumni Achievement Award


William H. Nichols Medal, New York Section, ACS


Richard C. Tolman Medal, Southern California Section, ACS


Michelson-Morley Award, Case Western Reserve University


James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, Northeastern Section, ACS


Linus Pauling Award, Oregon and Puget Sound Sections, ACS


Theodore William Richards Medal, Northeastern Section, ACS


Willard Gibbs Gold Medalist, Chicago Section, ACS


Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement


Priestley Medal, ACS


Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry

Table of Contents

Family and Early Education

Family background. Suffers severe illness in sixth grade. Develops interest in inventors and scientists. Becomes assistant to junior high school science teacher. Frequents high-voltage laboratory at Caltech. Admires teachers who challenge.

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Finds first semester easy despite working long hours. Second semester more difficult. Facilities rather primitive. School focuses on undergraduates. Builds bubbler and becomes excellent glass blower. Takes summer job with Professor Crowell; becomes research and teaching assistant as undergraduate. Begins work with Grignard reagents under Young and shares lab with McMillan.

Pennsylvania State University

Impressed by laboratory facilities. Work with Whitmore. Despite short stay, gains important knowledge and experience.

Return to UCLA

Ph.D. program newly established. Works on war project with Geissman. Returns to work with Grignard reagents. Friendship with Winstein. Interest in and work with dipole moments and small-ring compounds begins. Completes thesis. Offered teaching position. Synthesizes cyclopropanol.

Harvard University

Receives National Research Council Fellowship. Continues cyclopropane project. Friendship with Bartlett. Exciting atmosphere, chemists at Harvard. Explores areas not covered at UCLA. Teaches physical chemistry.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Position at Berkeley. Conflict with Morton. Coryell and Young influence decision to take position at MIT. Poor facilities except for nuclear science, so begins work with carbon-14. Laboratories renovated/facilities improve. Admires Cope. Socializing with the Copes and Sheehans. Sheehan's synthesis of penicillin and patenting of intermediate. Enjoys working with Swain. Teaches physical organic, elementary organic courses. Graduate students and work with seniors on theses. Works with Mazur on small-ring compounds. Discovers rapid rearrangement in Bartlett-Condon-Schneider experiment. First exposure to molecular orbital theory. Interacts periodically with Winstein. Much work with norbornene compounds. Benzyne research creates controversy. Receives ACS Award in Pure Chemistry. Consults for DuPont and Oak Ridge. Receives Priestley Medal. Disappointed by administrative problems, especially with library. Tempted by Columbia offer because of high esteem for Hammett.

California Institute of Technology

Arrives on Guggenheim Fellowship. Impressed by facilities. Asserts independence from Cope. Feels guilty about leaving MIT but loves the different atmosphere at Caltech.


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.