James F. Roth

Born: December 7, 1925 | Rahway, NJ, US

James Roth recounts his formative yeas at the Bronx High School of Science in Bronx, New York, his early interests in research and physical chemistry, and his service in Iwo Jima. Roth reflects on his career in industry, from his work on solid propellants and photochemical smog at the Franklin Institute, his safe production of synthetic rubber, and his research on heterogeneous catalyst and homogeneous catalysis at Monsanto Company. Roth also discusses a successful patent process, the learning curve for developing technology, the need for empowerment of chemists, and the chemical industry, its future, and the industrial parameters chemists need to achieve their full potential. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0128
No. of pages: 56
Minutes: 189

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
23 January 1996
Sarasota, Florida

Abstract of Interview

James Roth begins this interview by discussing the origins of his interest in research and physical chemistry as well as the impacts of growing up in the Bronx, New York, attending the Bronx High School of Science, and serving in Iwo Jima at the age of nineteen. Next he examines his early intellectual strengths and proclivities and his undergraduate and graduate school work. He describes his early position with the Franklin Institute and his work there on solid propellants and photochemical smog. Then he discusses his move to General Aniline & Film Corporation, where he developed a safe process to produce synthetic rubber. He next discusses his move to Monsanto Company, where he developed heterogeneous catalyst characterization. Roth describes his work under Dr. Leo Spillane and the development of a technology that used noble metal catalysts to produce biodegradable linear olefins from linear paraffins. He also examines his discovery of a low-pressure technology for carbonylating methanol to acetic acid using a rhodium carbonyl iodide catalyst, and his work in homogeneous catalysis. In the process he expounds his views on successfully getting a plant from the pilot stage to full production stage. He touches on the patent competition between Monsanto and other companies, and airs his views on a successful patent process. He then discusses his move to Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., and his creating a world-class laboratory there. Finally, he ends the interview by reflecting on the learning curve for developing technology; the need for empowerment of chemists; and the chemical industry, its future, and the industrial parameters chemists need to achieve their full potential. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1947 University of West Virginia AB Chemistry
2016 University of Maryland, College Park PhD Physical Chemistry

Professional Experience

Franklin Institute

1951 to 1954
Senior Research Chemist
1959 to 1960
Manager, Chemistry Laboratory

Lehigh Paint and Chemicals, Inc.

1954 to 1956
Chief Chemist

General Aniline & Film Corporation

1956 to 1959
Research Chemist

Monsanto Chemical Company

1960 to 1964
Research Specialist in Heterogenous Catalysis
1964 to 1967
1967 to 1973
Manager of Catalysis Research
1973 to 1977
Director of Catalysis Research
1977 to 1980
Director, Process Sciences, Corporate Research Laboratory


Year(s) Award
1950 to 1951

National Institutes of Health Fellowship


Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists


Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)


Houdry Award, Catalysis Society


ACS Award in Industrial Chemistry

Table of Contents

Family Background and Early Education

Parents' emigration from Hungary and Czechoslovakia after World War I. Experiences growing up with children of immigrants. The Bronx High School of Science; interests in chemistry and research.

College Education, World War II

Hiatus at business school. Return to studying chemistry at the University of West Virginia. Serving in Iwo Jima during World War II. Graduate and doctoral work at the University of Maryland.

The Franklin Institute

Research on solid propellants during the Korean War. Research on smog formation.

General Aniline & Film Corporation

Developing a safe technology for making synthetic rubber. U. S. government/Interhandel battle over GAF ownership. Hiatus at Franklin Institute: research on automobile emissions.

Monsanto Company: Early Career

Automobile exhaust catalysts. Roundup. Monsanto's attitude toward publication. Linear olefin production. Noble metal catalysts. Low-pressure carbonylation of methanol to acetic acid; discovery of rhodium carbonyl iodide catalyst. Views on empowerment of chemists and the influence of corporate business on research.

Monsanto Company: Executive Career

Directorates of catalysis research and process sciences. Homogeneous catalysis. Hydroformylation as outgrowth of acetic acid technology. Executive decisionmaking and inter-company patent competition. Adiponitrile production. Success of new technology through senior managment championship. Hydrogenation catalysis. Asymmetric hydrogenation. The methyl-carbon bond. Japan's development of BINAP phosphine ligand. Acetic anhydride production.

Air Products and Chemicals, Inc.

Building a world-class laboratory. Organic and polymer synthesis; advanced gas separation technology; catalysis. Hiring procedures.

Views on Business Leadership and Industry

A new CEO's imprint on company research. Roundup. Diphenylether production. Industrial chemistry's frustrations and rewards. Factors affecting the growth of technology and its translation into commercial success.

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.