Oral history interview with Howard E. Simmons, Jr.

Oral history interview with Howard E. Simmons, Jr.

  • 1993-Apr-27

Howard E. Simmons, Jr., begins the interview describing his family history. 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 MIT because of its post-WWII reputation, he studied chemistry and conducted research under Jack D. Roberts. Earning a B.S. in 1951, he continued at MIT with Roberts and Arthur C. Cope, completing Ph.D. research on benzene, 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.

Property Value
Place of interview
Original file type PDF, MP3
  • 29 pages
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
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.

Physical location


Interviewee biographical information

  • June 17, 1929
  • Norfolk, Virginia, United States
  • April 26, 1997
  • Greenville, Delaware, United States


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 & Company

  • 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

  • 1968 Sloan Visiting Professor

University of Delaware

  • 1970 to 1997 Adjunct Professor

University of Chicago

  • 1978 Kharasch Professor


Year(s) Award
1975 Member, National Academy of Sciences
1975 Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1975 Award, Delaware Section, American Chemical Society
1981 Fellow, American Association for Advancement of Science
1987 DSc degree (honorary), Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute
1990 National Science Board, National Academy of Sciences
1991 Chandler Medal, Columbia University
1992 National Medal of Science
1993 DSc degree (honorary), University of Delaware
1994 Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society
1994 Lavoisier Medal, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company

Cite as

Howard E. Simmons, interviewed by James J. Bohning in Wilmington, Delaware on April 27, 1993. Philadelphia: Science History Institute, n.d. Oral History Transcript 0111. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/2r36tz72w.

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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

8 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads