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.

Place of interview
Original file type MP3, PDF
  • 29 pages
Rights In Copyright - Non-Commercial Use Permitted
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
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Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

Physical location


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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Transcript (Published Version)

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