James N. Shoolery

Born: June 25, 1925 | Worland, WY, US
Died: September 24, 2015 | Half Moon Bay, CA, US

James N. Shoolery begins by discussing growing up during the Depression and his early interests in chemistry. His education at University of California, Berkeley, was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the US Navy. Shoolery decided to pursue a PhD in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology and worked under Don M. Yost on microwave spectroscopy. Shoolery wrote to Varian Associates, Inc. about the possibility of his coming to work there on applications for nuclear magnetic resonance; he spent nearly forty years working there.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0230
No. of pages: 66
Minutes: 350

Interview Sessions

Arnold Thackray and David C. Brock
18 January 2002
Palo Alto, California

Abstract of Interview

James N. Shoolery begins the interview by discussing his family background and growing up during the Depression. His interest in chemistry began in his childhood and grew further during his undergraduate years at the University of California, Berkeley. His education was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the US Navy as a radar technician in the South China Sea. Upon his return to the United States, Shoolery toyed with the idea of pursuing electrical engineering because of his experiences in the Navy, but he ultimately decided against it. Shoolery decided to pursue a PhD in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology and worked under Don M. Yost on microwave spectroscopy. After visiting an electronics show in Los Angeles, California, and seeing their exhibit, Shoolery wrote to Varian Associates, Inc. about the possibility of his coming to work there on applications for nuclear magnetic resonance. He joined Varian Associates, Inc. in 1952 and spent nearly forty years working there. Shoolery shares his impressions of Varian Associates, Inc., its management, its products, and his pride in having been able to follow the development of NMR for such an extended period of time. Shoolery concludes the interview with a discussion of his life outside of Varian and shares some final thoughts about his career. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1948 University of California, Berkeley BS Chemistry
1952 California Institute of Technology PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

Varian Associates, Inc.

1952 to 1962
Director, Applications Laboratory
1962 to 1969
Marketing Manager, Analytical Instruments Division
1972 to 1990
Senior Application Chemist


1969 to 1972
Independent Consultant
1990 to 2004
Independent Consultant


Year(s) Award

Sargent Award


Award in Chemical Instrumentation, American Chemical Society, Division of Analytical Chemistry


Anachem Award, Federation of Analytical Chemistry and Spectroscopy Societies

Table of Contents

Family Background

Parents' background. Impact of the Great Depression. Time at a sanitarium. Move to California. Role of religion in his life. Pre-college education. University of California, Berkeley. Development of scientific interests.

University of California, Berkeley

Joel Hildebrand. Nobel laureates as teachers. Gilbert N. Lewis. William F. Giauque. William C. Bray. Melvin Calvin. Glenn T. Seaborg.

World War II and the United States Navy

Eddy Test for radar technicians. Entrance exams. Alpha Chi Sigma fraternity. Friendship with William W. Reynolds. Tour of duty in Pacific. Okinawa, Japan. Experience in a typhoon. Hainan, China. Hong Kong, China. Shanghai, China. Experiences on shore leave. Qingdao, China.

Return to the United States

Return to the University of California, Berkeley and coursework in electrical engineering. Decision to go to graduate school at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Montgomery G. I. Bill.

Graduate School Years

Social life and ice-skating. Robert A. Millikan. William D. Gwinn. Microwave spectroscopy. Decision to work with Don M. Yost. John S. Waugh. Robert G. Shulman. Building a microwave spectrometer. Hewlitt-Packard, Inc. Varian Associates, Inc. Bout with mononucleosis. Carbon-14 dating. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Coursework at Caltech. John G. Kirkwood. Bernie J. Alder. Linus C. Pauling. Allan R. Sandage as roommate. Interactions with Don M. Yost. Introduction to Varian Associates, Inc. H. Myrl Stearns. Ralph W. Kane.

Varian Associates, Inc.

Russell H. and Sigurd F. Varian. Felix Block, William W. Hansen, and NMR patents. Varian special products division. Applications work. Humble Oil Company and ethyl alcohol tests. Advertising in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Rolly Williams. First NMR spectrometer. Competition. Shell Development Company. Impressions of Varian Associates, Inc. and its Management. Emery Rogers and marketing. Model A60. Virginia Royden. LeRoy F. Johnson. Spectra Physics, Inc. SpectraSpin. Elias J. Corey. Nuclear Side Band Oscillator. Oxford Instruments, PLC and its magnets. Bruker Instruments Company. Carl Djerassi. Shoolery as "product champion" and as marketing manager for NMR division. JEOL Ltd. Model T60. Model CFT20. Model CFT80. Gemini Model. Shoolery as chemist "consumer. "

Time Away from Varian

Stagnancy at Varian Associates, Inc. Personal life. Carl R. Rogers and "active listening. " Teaching. Return to Varian as applications chemist. Divorce and remarriage.

General Reflections

Development of NMR. Infrared spectroscopy. NMR and its acceptance by inorganic and organic chemists and biochemists. X-ray crystallography. Pharmaceutical companies. Reflections on Varian. J. Tracy O'Rourke. Tom Sege. Edward L. Ginzton. Computer aided tomography scanning and magnetic resonance imaging.

Life Outside Varian

Family life. Judith L. Shoolery and her work. Interest in traveling. Living in Half Moon Bay, California. Hoover Institute at Stanford University. Consulting work. Final thoughts on his career.


I. Letter to Mr. Stearns


About the Interviewer

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.