Oral history interview with Roald Hoffmann

Oral history interview with Roald Hoffmann

  • 2014-Oct-16 (First interview)
  • 2014-Oct-17 (Second interview)
  • 2015-Mar-21 (Third interview)
Portrait of Roald Hoffmann
credit: Michael Grace-Martin

Roald Hoffmann was born Roald Safran in Złoczów, Poland, in 1937. When the Nazi Wehrmacht reached Złoczów in 1941, Roald’s family went into hiding, then into a labor camp. His father bribed the guards to allow Roald, his mother, and several other family members to leave, but was himself executed soon after. Roald’s family spent the remainder of the war in hiding. The family then moved to Krakow, Roald’s mother remarried, and they acquired the surname Hoffmann from bought identity papers they used to emigrate to Prague and, eventually, to the United States.

After graduating from Stuyvesant High School and completing his bachelor’s degree at the Columbia University, Hoffmann went to Harvard University for a graduate program in chemical physics, planning to work with William E. Moffitt. Moffitt’s death led Hoffmann to Martin Gouterman, then to William Lipscomb. His PhD in theoretical chemistry focused on boron hydrides. During a Junior Fellowship at Harvard, he applied the extended Hückel method he had developed for the boron hydride calculations to organic molecules. In 1965, Hoffmann took up a faculty position at Cornell University. He describes the role of computers in his work, both at Harvard and at Cornell, his approach to establishing and leading a research group, his interactions with colleagues, his collaborations with R. B. Woodward, and the experience and impact of winning the Nobel Prize. He also discusses his writing projects, which include poetry, plays—including Oxygen, which he cowrote with Carl Djerassi—and popular works exploring science and religion. Throughout the discussion, Hoffmann returns to the themes of building bridges between branches of chemistry, between chemistry and physics, between science and the humanities, and between academia and the public.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 121 pages
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute
Digitization funder
  • Audio synchronization made possible through the generous funding of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

About the Interviewers

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.

Carsten Reinhardt served as the Science History Institute’s president from 2013 to 2016 (then the Chemical Heritage Foundation). He is currently a professor of the history of science at Bielefeld University, Germany. Reinhardt has extensively researched and published on the impact of chemistry on society through topics including the history of industrial research, the emergence of instrumentation, and chemistry’s links to physics, biology, medicine, and technology. Reinhardt has received many awards and fellowships, including being named a fellow at the Max Planck Institute and a visiting professor in the Department of Philosophy, École Normale Supérieure, Paris. Reinhardt was an Edelstein Fellow at the Institute in 1998–1999 and at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1994.

Physical location

Oral history number 0925

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Interviewee biographical information

  • July 18, 1937
  • Zloczow, Poland


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1958 Columbia University BA Chemistry
1960 Harvard University MS Physics
1960 Harvard University PhD Chemical physics

Professional Experience

Harvard University

  • 1962 to 1965 Junior Fellow, Society of Fellows

Cornell University

  • 1965 to 1968 Associate Professor, Chemistry
  • 1968 to 1974 Professor, Chemistry
  • 1974 to 1996 John A. Newman Professor, Physical Sciences
  • 1996 to 2008 Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters
  • 2008 Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters Emeritus


Year(s) Award
1969 American Chemical Society Award, Alpha Chi Sigma
1969 Fresenius Award, Phi Lambda Upsilon
1969 Harrison Howe Award, American Chemical Society, Rochester Section
1970 Award of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Sciences
1971 Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1972 Member, National Academy of Sciences
1973 Inaugural Recipient of the Arthur C. Cope Award in Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society (co-recipient)
1974 Linus Pauling Award
1978 Member, International Academy of Quantum Molecular Sciences
1981 Nichols Medal of the New York Section of the American Chemical Society
1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
1982 ACS Award in Inorganic Chemistry
1983 National Medalof Science
1983 Foreign Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy
1984 Foreign Member of the Royal Society
1984 Member, American Philosophical Society
1985 Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
1986 Dickinson College Award
1986 National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences
1988 Foreign Member of the Societas Scientarum Fennica
1988 Foreign Member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR
1990 Priestley Medal
1991 N.N. Semenov Gold Medal, Academy of Sciences of the USSR
1994 Centennial Medal of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University
1996 Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, American Chemical Society
1997 Inaugural Elizabeth A. Wood Science Writing Award, American Crystallographic Association
1998 Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary Award of India
1998 Corresponding Member, Nordrhein-Westfälische Academy of Sciences
1999 Honorary Member of the German Chemical Society
2000 Member, Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina
2002 Honorary Member of the Chemical Society of Japan
2006 Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists
2010 Member, Mexican Academy of Sciences
2018 Member, Real Academia de Ciencias

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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

5 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads