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Oral history interview with J. Throck Watson

  • 2013-Oct-27 – 2013-Oct-28

Oral history interview with J. Throck Watson

  • 2013-Oct-27 – 2013-Oct-28

J. Throck Watson was born in 1939 and grew up in small towns in Iowa. His father worked at the local school, and his mother stayed at home. Watson spent much of his childhood outdoors, playing with his brother and his cousins. In the summers, he helped his father and uncle harvest bluegrass. As a senior in high school, Watson took a chemistry class and found it so fascinating that he decided to major in chemistry at Iowa State University. He participated in a fraternity and worked with Harry J. Svec, who encouraged him to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for graduate school. As a Ph.D. student at MIT, Watson worked with Klaus Biemann on a mechanical project to use molecular effusion to remove partially the carrier gas in a combination gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer instrument. Upon graduation, Watson served three years in the US Air Force to fulfill his military commitment incurred due to his participation in ROTC during college, which was deferred during Watson’s time in graduate school. He was stationed at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where he worked at the School of Aerospace Medicine. After his tour of duty was complete, Watson accepted a postdoctoral position at the Institut de Chimie, Université de Strasbourg in France where he learned practical organic mass spectrometry. At the time, the French were favorable toward the Americans, so Watson had a positive experience abroad, which reminded him of his summer job in Bavaria, Germany, during college when he worked as a farm laborer.

When the one-year postdoc ended, Watson accepted a professorship of pharmacology at Vanderbilt University where he taught pharmacology classes and worked on a book, Introduction to Mass Spectrometry. After gaining tenure at Vanderbilt, the director of the mass spectrometry facility at Michigan State University called Watson and told him he was stepping down and wanted Watson to take his place. Watson accepted the position on the condition that he would be part of the chemistry faculty, which was granted. At Michigan State, Watson had many graduate students. During a sabbatical, he worked with Christian Rolando in France. Of all of his contributions to science, he was most proud of his work with his graduate students at Michigan State. When a grant application was not renewed, he decided to retire and “go fishing.” Watson ends the interview by discussing hydrogen ions, instrumentation, working with graduate students, grants, professional societies like the American Chemical Society and the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, analytical chemistry, various colleagues, the origin of his middle name “Throck,” and the importance of his research today.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 93 pages
  • 4 h 56 m 36 s
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

Michael A. Grayson is a member of the Mass Spectrometry Research Resource at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his BS degree in physics from St. Louis University in 1963 and his MS in physics from the University of Missouri at Rolla in 1965. He is the author of over 45 papers in the scientific literature. Before joining the Research Resource, he was a staff scientist at McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratory. While completing his undergraduate and graduate education, he worked at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, where he learned the art and science of mass spectrometry. Grayson is a member of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), and has served many different positions within that organization. He has served on the Board of Trustees of CHF and is currently a member of CHF's Heritage Council. He currently pursues his interest in the history of mass spectrometry by recording oral histories, assisting in the collection of papers, and researching the early history of the field.

Institutional location

Oral history number 0903

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • May 02, 1939
  • Casey, Iowa, United States
  • September 03, 2016
  • Santa Rosa, California, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1961 Iowa State University BS Chemistry
1965 Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD Analytical Chemistry

Professional Experience

Université de Strasbourg. Institut de Chimie

  • 1968 to 1969 Postdoctoral position

Vanderbilt University. School of Medicine

  • 1969 to 1973 Assistant Professor of Pharmacology
  • 1973 to 1980 Associate Professor of Pharmacology

Michigan State University

  • 1980 to 2006 Professor of Biochemistry
  • 1980 to 2006 Professor of Chemistry

MSU/NIH Mass Spectrometry Facility

  • 1980 to 1999 Principle Investigator and Director


Year(s) Award
1960 Texaco Scholarship in Organic Chemistry, Iowa State University
1961 Texaco Scholarship in Organic Chemistry, Iowa State University
1963 DuPont Teaching Fellow at MIT
1964 Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Research Fellow, MIT
1972 Outstanding Young Alumnus, Iowa State University
1973 NIH Career Development Award, Vanderbilt University
1977 NIH Career Development Award, Vanderbilt University
1981 Citation of Merit, Iowa State University
1990 Pittsburgh Spectroscopy Society Awardee
1992 Professeur Invité, École Normale Superieure, Paris, France
1995 Professeur Invité, École Normale Superieure, Paris, France
1996 to 1999 Member, Standing Committee of National Research Council
2000 Professeur Invité, Université des Sciences et Technologies, Lille, France
2002 Professeur Invité, Université de Nice, Sophia-Antipolis, Nice, France

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PDF — 1.1 MB

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

4 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads