Howard E. Simmons, Jr.

Born: June 17, 1929 | Norfolk, VA, US
Died: April 26, 1997 | Greenville, DE, US

Howard E. Simmons, Jr., begins by describing his family history. Drawn to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) because of its post-World War II reputation, he studied chemistry and conducted research under Jack D. Roberts. Earning a BS in 1951, he continued at MIT with Roberts and Arthur C. Cope, completing a PhD. Simmons became a member of research staff in the Central Research Department at DuPont in 1954. His early studies on structure and mechanisms led to the Simmons-Smith reaction, the first general synthesis of cyclopropanes, and a related patent. He closes with a description of his sons' DuPont careers and comments on scientific misconduct. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0111
No. of pages: 70
Minutes: 228

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
27 April 1993
DuPont Experimental Station, Wilmington, Delaware

Abstract of Interview

Howard E. Simmons, Jr., born 17 June 1929, begins the interview describing his family history. The men on his father's side were merchant marines; his maternal grandfather was an entomologist from Germany and descendant of noted entomologist Jacob Hübner. Simmons, an only child growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, pursued early chemistry interests in a home laboratory and graduated high school near the top of his class. Drawn to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) because of its post-World War II reputation, he studied chemistry and conducted research under Jack D. Roberts. Earning a BS in 1951, he continued at MIT with Roberts and Arthur C. Cope, completing PhD research on benzyne, trans-cycloöctene oxide, and cyclobutenes obtained from adducts of acetylene. Here Simmons describes coursework, professors, research, colleagues, and MIT's lab atmosphere. In 1953, Simmons met Theodore L. Cairns, science director in DuPont's Chemical Department, who invited him for a DuPont visit that led to Simmons becoming a member of research staff in the Central Research Department (CRD) in 1954. He began research on polyacetylenes but quickly moved to fluoroketones. His early studies on structure and mechanisms led to the Simmons-Smith reaction, the first general synthesis of cyclopropanes, and a related patent. Here, he discusses this research, relevant colleagues, and thiacyanocarbons studies before moving on to work with Harvard University's Robert B. Woodward and proteges, including Tadamichi Fukunaga and research on spiroconjugation. Simmons mentions collaborations in quantum chemistry and topology with Rudolph Pariser and Richard E. Merrifield, and he details Cairns' program of interaction between DuPont and European universities. He describes trends in turnover from CRD into industrial departments and in company support for publications and basic research. Also discussed are his CRD promotions from Research Supervisor in 1959, to Associate Director of Research in 1970, Director of Research in 1974, Director in 1979, and Vice President in 1983. In the late 1960s, Simmons began collaborations with Chung Ho Park to synthesize macrobiotic amines, large rings containing hydrocarbon cavities. He describes this and related research on crown ethers and their relationships to work by Nobel Laureates Charles Pedersen and Jean-Marie Lehn. He next summarizes additional publications; collaborations with scientists at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) and with Joseph Bunnett, George Hammond, and Jack Leonard; and associations with the University of Chicago and the University of Delaware. Finally, he discusses work as Director under Irving Shapiro and Richard Heckert, and the growth of CRD under Ed Jefferson; CRD accomplishments in molecular biology and superconductivity, including a DNA-sequence reading machine; and Senior Science Advisor and retirement work with DuPont and other organizations, including the University of Delaware Research Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation. He closes with a description of his sons' DuPont careers and comments on scientific misconduct. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1951 Massachusetts Institute of Technology BS Chemistry
1954 Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

1954 to 1959
Member of Research Staff, Central Research & Development Department
1959 to 1970
Research Supervisor, Central Research & Development Department
1970 to 1974
Associate Director of Research, Central Research & Development Department
1974 to 1979
Director of Research, Central Research & Development Department
1979 to 1983
Director, Central Research & Development Department
1983 to 1990
Vice President, Central Research & Development Department
1990 to 1991
Vice President and Senior Science Advisor, Central Research & Development Department
1991 to 1997
Consultant, Central Research & Development Department

Harvard University

Sloan Visiting Professor

University of Delaware

1970 to 1997
Adjunct Professor

University of Chicago

Kharasch Professor


Year(s) Award

Member, National Academy of Sciences


Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Award, Delaware Section, American Chemical Society


Fellow, American Association for Advancement of Science


DSc degree (honorary), Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute


National Science Board, National Academy of Sciences


Chandler Medal, Columbia University


National Medal of Science


DSc degree (honorary), University of Delaware


Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society


Lavoisier Medal, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

Table of Contents

Family Background and Early Education

Paternal background as sea captains; maternal ties to entomology and Jacob Hübner, the first man to catalog North American butterflies. Recollections as only child in Norfolk, Virginia; praise for high school teachers. Early home laboratory and interest in studying chemistry and pursuing chemistry career. MIT's reputation after World War II and decision to attend there.

College and Graduate Education at MIT

Atmosphere and social life at Boston and MIT upon arrival in late 1940s. Curriculum, professors, meeting and working with J. D. Roberts. Changes in organic chemistry in 1950s. Undergraduate thesis with Roberts. Graduate work with Roberts and A. C. Cope. Factors influencing decisions about post-PhD work and decision to accept position at DuPont. Interactions with T. L. Cairns and Cairns' role building DuPont's Chemical Department. Relationships with Cope and Roberts and dissertation on benzyne, trans-cyclooctene oxide, and cyclobutenes obtained from adducts of acetylene. MIT lab atmosphere and colleagues.

Early DuPont Career

First position in Central Research Department and overall company organization. Memories of job interview, salaries, and promotions. Interest in research vs. management career. First assignments. Publishing at DuPont and Cairns' role. Polyacetylene research and move into fluoroketone area. Work on cyclopropane synthesis. Work with R. Smith, E. Blanchard, W. Phillips, and with Roberts as consultant. Research on thiacyanocarbons. Patent on cyclopropanation reaction. Research Supervisor career. Recruiting. Origins of work with R. B. Woodward, work with Woodward's former student T. Fukunaga and predilection for Asian coworkers. Publications in 1960s and move into theoretical work. Relationship with R. Pariser. Interests in quantum chemistry and topology.

DuPont Programs and Culture

Cairns' program of interaction and exchange with European universities. Tour of Europe in 1960 and continuing visits to German universities. Later DuPont recruitment of European scientists. History of movement of many CRD recruits into industrial departments and management careers. Company support for publication in Journal of Chemical Physics and elsewhere. Company support for basic research; changes in support levels under varied leadership and after mid-eighties. Attitudes surrounding acquiring Conoco.

Later DuPont Research and Career

Publications in 1960s, including spiroconjugation work. Sabbatical in 1968, Visiting Professorship at Harvard and work with Woodward. Work with R. Merrifield. Promotions from Associate Director of Research through Vice President of CRD. Collaboration with C. H. Park in synthesizing macrobiotic amines, large rings containing hydrocarbon cavities, and on crown ether work. Relationships with work of Nobel Laureates C. Pederson and J. M. Lehn. Research on acetylenedicarbonyl fluoride, tetraazatridecane. Position at University of Delaware as adjunct professor and work teaching and advising graduate students. Cyclopropanation work. Visiting professorship at University of Chicago.

Reflections on CRD Directorship and Final Stages of Career

CRD's agenda, organization, and operations as Director. Accomplishments in life sciences during 1980s. Discoveries in modern superconductivity business. Development of Freon replacements. Promotion to Senior Science Advisor. Retirement and local activities. Sons' backgrounds and careers at DuPont. Contributions to and pride in recruitment at DuPont. National Academy of Sciences work leading to Prudent Practices in the Laboratory. Views on scientific misconduct.


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.