Frank H. Westheimer

Born: January 15, 1912 | Baltimore, MD, US
Died: Saturday, April 14, 2007 | Cambridge, MA, US

In his oral history interview, Frank Westheimer begins discussing his family, his undergraduate days at Dartmouth, and his choice of Harvard for graduate work. He talks about his research with James Conant, Elmer Kohler, and his early interest in biochemistry in the mid-1930s. Westheimer continues with the offer of a position at the University of Chicago from Morris Kharasch. The interview concludes with more discussion of physical organic chemistry, a review of his work on the hydrolysis of phosphate esters and pseudorotation; comments on the future of organic chemistry; and a review of the Westheimer Report, the analysis of American chemistry by the National Academy of Sciences.

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0046
No. of pages: 130
Minutes: 479

Interview Sessions

Leon B. Gortler
4 and 5 January 1979
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

In this interview, Frank Westheimer begins with his family, his childhood and early education in Baltimore, his undergraduate days at Dartmouth, his decision to go into chemistry, and his choice of Harvard for graduate work. Next, he covers his years as a graduate student at Harvard and talks about his research with James Conant and Elmer Kohler, the faculty at Harvard and the courses they taught, and his summer work with Alsoph Corwin at Johns Hopkins. He also talks at length about his early interest in biochemistry, his view of theoretical organic chemistry in the mid-1930s and the opportunities for research open to him, the development of theoretical organic chemistry in the early part of the twentieth century, and the publications of some of the early scientists. This is followed by a description of his year as a National Research Fellow at Columbia, his research, his colleagues, and more on the development of his interest in biochemical problems. Westheimer continues with the offer of a position at the University of Chicago from Morris Kharasch, and includes an extensive discussion of the university, his research, and his collaboration with John Kirkwook, Joe Mayer and Birgit Vennesland. In the next part of the interview, he comments on his selection and training of students and discusses a number of former students who have been successful in research careers. The interview concludes with more discussion of physical organic chemistry, past, present and future; a review of his work on the hydrolysis of phosphate esters and pseudorotation; comments on the future of organic chemistry; and a review of the Westheimer Report, the analysis of American chemistry by the National Academy of Sciences.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1932 Dartmouth College AB Chemistry
1933 Harvard University MA Chemistry
1935 Harvard University PhD Chemistry (mentors: James B. Conant, Elmer P. Kohler)

Professional Experience

Columbia University

1935 to 1936
National Research Fellow

University of Chicago

1936 to 1941
Instructor
1941 to 1946
Assistant Professor
1946 to 1948
Associate Professor
1948 to 1954
Professor

National Defense Research Committee

1944 to 1945
Research Supervisor

Harvard University

1953 to 1954
Visiting Professor
1954 to 1960
Professor
1959 to 1962
Department Chairman
1960 to 1982
Loeb Professor of Chemistry
1982 to 1983
Senior Professor
1983
Loeb Professor of Chemistry Emeritus

National Academy of Sciences

1964 to 1965
Chairman, Committee to Survey Chemistry

Honors

Year(s) Award
1954

Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences

1970

Willard Gibbs Medal, Chicago Section, American Chemical Society

1970

James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, Northeastern Section, American Chemical Society

1976

Theodore William Richards Medal, Northeastern Section, American Chemical Society

1980

Richard Kokes Award, National Academy of Sciences

1980

Charles Frederick Chandler Award

1981

Lewis C. Rosenstiel Award, Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center

1982

Robert A. Welch Award, The Robert A. Welch Foundation

1982

Arthur C. Cope Award, American Chemical Society

1982

William H. Nichols Medal, New York Section, American Chemical Society

1983

Christopher Ingold Medal, The Chemical Society of London

1988

Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society

Table of Contents

Childhood, Family and Early Education
1

Father's background and abilities. Father's influence. Family values of hard work and integrity. Mother's background and her role. Early schooling. Problems with spelling and writing. English lessons from James Senior at the University of Chicago. Learning trigonometry on his own. Lesson learned. Jobs as a teenager. Early reading.

Undergraduate Education at Dartmouth
7

Selecting a college. Entered Dartmouth, 1928. Experiences at Dartmouth. Intelligence testing. Decision to become a chemist. Parents' reaction. View of being a chemist. Decision to enter Harvard and work with James Conant. Chemistry courses at Dartmouth. State of the chemistry laboratories. Undergraduate research and current opinion of its value. Nonscience courses at Dartmouth.

Graduate Study at Harvard
16

Courses. Picking a research mentor. First research project. Research with Elmer Kohler. Friends and associates at Harvard. Development of interest in biochemistry. Research with Alsoph Corwin. Thoughts on theoretical organic chemistry as a graduate student. Awarded National Research Fellowship. Important conversation with James Conant. Courses with George Kistiakowsky, Elmer Kohler, Louis Fieser and Paul Bartlett. Thoughts on the development of organic chemistry. Reading in organic chemistry—comments on the work of Louis Hammett, Arthur Lapworth, Max Bodenstein, Robert Robinson, Christopher Ingold. First meeting with George Wheland.

Research at Columbia University
32

More on development of interest in biochemistry. Selection by Morris Kharasch for Chicago position. Anti-Semitism in chemistry. Graduate students and faculty at Columbia.

University of Chicago
41

First research papers from Chicago. Teaching physical organic chemistry for the first time. Collaboration with John Kirkwood. Robert Hutchins' view of science. Morris Kharasch and other Chicago faculty. Chicago's emphasis on physical organic chemistry. Important criterion for choosing a research problem. Chromic acid oxidation. Meeting with Jan Rocek in London. Research facilities at Chicago. Postwar atmosphere in chemistry at Chicago—great scientists, exciting problems. Reason for leaving Chicago. Courses taught and textbooks used.

Research Projects and Philosophy
63

Reading the literature. Research productivity and the size of research groups. Project on optically active biphenyls with Joe Mayer. Nitration of aromatic compounds. Work at Bruceton, the Explosives Research Laboratory. Kinetic analysis. Decarboxylation research. Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) research—enzymatic oxidation-reduction. Paper of A. G. Ogston on asymmetric decarboxylation. The use of kinetic isotope effects in mechanistic studies. Optically active deuteroethanol. Simultaneous publication with Andrew Streitwieser.

Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Fellows
83

Selection of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The training of graduate students. Former graduate students and postdocs who have been successful.

Physical Organic Chemistry
87

The community in 1935 and 1940. Self-recognition as a community. The community in 1946. Knowledge of Lewis bonding theory as an undergraduate. Delay in the beginning of physical organic chemistry. The effect of successful empirical organic chemistry. Current status of physical organic chemistry.

The Hydrolysis of Phosphate Esters. Pseudorotation.
97
The Future of Chemistry. The Use of Enzymes.
102
The Westheimer Report
104
Notes
111
Index
117

About the Interviewer

Leon B. Gortler

Leon Gortler is a professor of chemistry at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He holds AB and MS degrees from the University of Chicago and a PhD from Harvard University where he worked with Paul Bartlett. He has long been interested in the history of chemistry, in particular the development of physical organic chemistry, and has conducted over fifty oral and videotaped interviews with major American chemists.