Digital Collections

Oral history interview with O. David Sparkman

  • 2007-Jul-06

Oral history interview with O. David Sparkman

  • 2007-Jul-06

O. David Sparkman grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, one of two children. His father managed a refrigeration supply company and then owned a restaurant; his mother was a stenographer and then an office manager. Sparkman developed his interest in chemistry in high school and decided to attend North Texas State University for several reasons: it had a good reputation; it was close to home; it was inexpensive and had financial support; and it provided work in the chemistry department. William H. (Bill) Glaze was Sparkman’s mentor and has continued to be a friend and colleague. While at Oklahoma State University for a National Science Foundation (NSF) research fellowship, Sparkman decided he was interested in organic analytical chemistry and instrumentation; he taught himself nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and infrared spectroscopy (IR). Back at North Texas he became manager of the instrument room and taught quantitative inorganic analysis. He took a short course on the Spectrometric Identification of Organic Compounds sponsored by the American Chemical Society (ACS) held during a Southwest/Southeast combined Regional Meeting taught by Robert Silverstein and Clayton Bassler.

Wanting industrial experience, Sparkman took a job with the Western Company of North America, which provided oil field services. While there he made a library of gas chromatograms and IR spectra of the company’s corrosion-inhibitor components, his first foray into data provision and management. His activities at the Western Company served the company well in that using his library he identified a bad mixture and saved Western from a significant expense. During this time, he also reconnected with Bill Glaze and the two, with a couple of others, formed Analytical Consultants, Inc. (ACI), where he worked for two years. After leaving ACI, he joined Thuron Industries, a pesticides products manufacturer. Not long after, Zoëcon, a spinoff from Syntex with the goal of producing more ecological friendly pesticides, bought Thuron. When Zoëcon’s president, Carl Djerassi, visited Thuron, he was surprised to find that Sparkman was a skillful organic analytical chemist and knew of his publications in mass spectrometry.

From Thuron Sparkman joined with his old friend, colleague, and mentor, Bill Glaze, who had established a new environmental institute at North Texas. Minicomputers became available for data systems, and Sparkman, who had been recruited from Glaze’s institute by a computer company to work on the sales and development of a mass spectral data system, got Riber, a French mass spectrometry company, to buy Systems Industries’ data systems and was then hired by Riber to go to Paris to provide applications support and continued development. He then moved to California when Riber wanted to sell mass spectrometers in the United States; he sold the first one to Djerassi. When Riber went bankrupt, Sparkman went to New Jersey to work for JEOL Ltd. Microcomputers were becoming very significant at that point, and he and another employee left JEOL to form J&S Information Systems, a consulting firm. He also taught a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) course, beginning in 1978, with J. Throck Watson (whom he had met while at Riber) for the ACS at PittCon and national meetings. Sparkman met his wife in New Jersey but was glad to go back to California and eager to get back into mass spectrometry. Varian was again manufacturing mass spectrometers; Sparkman was able to go to work for them. Varian was introducing a fairly new technology, the three-dimensional quadrupole ion trap (3D QIT). He liked this technology but not its bureaucracy, and he left for the Mass Spectrometry Data Center at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) some five years later, where he contributed to the development of a mass spectrometry search program and database of electron ionization spectra. Next Patrick R. Jones, Chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of the Pacific, began a collaboration with Sparkman and had him teach courses in mass spectrometry as an adjunct professor. Sparkman founded the Pacific Mass Spectrometry Facility. Sparkman and Jack Watson had expanded their course offering to include a five-day, hands-on course taught at Michigan State University where Watson was a faculty member. When space became a problem at MSU, Sparkman moved the course to Pacific with the support of Watson.

At Varian Sparkman began to combine his love of books and history with his passion for mass spectrometry; he started to assemble his library. A new colleague that he met while consulting for a company that published software for chemists—one of their authors—introduced him to Powell Books, where he at once began to shop. Next AbeBooks received his largesse for its out-of-print books. He also persuaded the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) to republish early works; Klaus Biemann’s was first. To keep together his extensive library—well over a thousand volumes on mass spectrometry alone—and the computer supplements he has accumulated, he has offered his collection to the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), provided CHF keeps it all together.

Sparkman takes the interviewer on a tour of his library, explaining the organization; the various works themselves and their history; the reasons for their importance; and a number of related anecdotes. He talks about his most prized book, his most expensive, and his most elusive. He gives more information on where he has found the works. He mourns the attitude of libraries today, namely, “Toss them out!” but he also admits that he has benefited from this. He has even written a short article for the Bolton Society on the fun and frustration of book acquisition. He bemoans the decline in publishing standards, using his own recent work as an example. He believes that his greatest accomplishment has been in information management and access to information; he has not catalogued his library, but he has a list. He brokered an arrangement between Wiley Publishing and ASMS, a deal that allows members of ASMS to access all Wiley mass spectrometry journals that are online and are at least five years old. He believes his own collection is second only to Fred W. MacLafferty’s. Noting the importance of article titles in literature citation, he described his successful efforts to have all of the mass spectrometry journals, now, require this. Five years after this interview, Sparkman added an epilogue.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 74 pages
  • 3h 18m 46s
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

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.

Institutional location

Oral history number 0692

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • May 31, 1942
  • Dallas, Texas, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1965 Oklahoma State University at Stillwater NSF Fellowship Biochemistry
1966 North Texas State University BS Chemistry

Professional Experience

Western Company of North America

  • 1966 to 1967 Analytical Chemistry Manager for Oil Well Services Company

Analytical Consultants, Inc.

  • 1967 to 1969 Laboratory Director and Vice President of Analytical Testing

Thuron/Zoëcon Industries, Inc.

  • 1969 to 1974 International Product Manager and Assistant to Vice President of Legal Affairs

North Texas State University. Institute of Applied Sciences

  • 1974 to 1975 Research Associate in Environmental Water Chemistry

Systems Industries, Inc.

  • 1975 to 1977 Worldwide Sales and Marketing of Mass Spectrometry Data System


  • 1977 to 1982 Applications Chemist for Vice President of Marketing, North America Division

American Chemical Society and others

  • 1978 to present Mass Spectrometry Short Course Instructor


  • 1982 to 1983 Mass Spectrometry Product Manager

J&S Information Systems

  • 1983 to 1989 President

Varian, Inc.

  • 1989 to 1994 Product Manager for the Saturn GC/MS

Mass Spectrometry Data Center, National Institute of Standards and Technology, United States Department of Commerce

  • 1994 to present Contractor

University of the Pacific

  • 1999 to present Adjunct Professor of Chemistry and Director, Mass Spectrometry Facility


Year(s) Award
Faculty Advisor, Beta Pi Chapter, Alpha Chi Sigma, University of the Pacific
Elected Member, Executive Committee, Subdivision of Chromatography, Analytical Chemistry Division, American Chemical Society
Publication Committee, American Society for Mass Spectrometry
Mass Spectrometry Section Editor, John Wiley Encyclopedia of Analytical Chemistry
President and Program Chairman, Bay Area Mass Spectrometry
Book Review Editor, European Journal of Mass Spectrometry
Writer and Reviewer, Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, Journal of Chemical Information and Computer Sciences, Spectroscopy, and Journal of Mass Spectrometry
Writer and Reviewer, Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, Journal of Chemical Information and Computer Sciences, Spectroscopy, and Journal of Mass Spectrometry
1995 to 2001 American Society for Mass Spectrometry, Corporate Members Advisory Committee
1995 to 2003 Editorial Advisory Board of GC/MS UpDate Part A: Environmental and GC/MS UpDate Part B: Biomedical, Clinical, Drugs
1998 to 2003 Editorial Advisory Board, Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry
1999 to 2001 Sanibel Committee, American Society for Mass Spectrometry
2004 to 2006 Member-at-Large for Education, American Society for Mass Spectrometry
2008 Award for Continued Service in the Advancement of Analytical Chemistry American Chemical Society, Analytical Chemistry Division
2009 Alumni Appreciation Day Honoree, Department of Chemistry, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas

Cite as

See our FAQ page to learn how to cite an oral history.

PDF — 1015 KB

The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

7 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads