Ronald Macfarlane was born in Buffalo, New York, the oldest of three children. An excellent teacher in high school sparked his interest in chemistry, and Macfarlane attended the University of Buffalo, majoring in analytical chemistry. He found coursework rather boring, but relished exciting summer jobs in chemical industries. Nuclear chemistry was just getting started, and Macfarlane entered Carnegie Institute of Technology for a PhD. In Truman Kohman’s lab, he researched natural radioactivity. He made a kind of giant Geiger counter, which he published to international praise. Next, he accepted a postdoctoral position at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working on alpha activity in rare earth elements. After accidentally creating a more efficient way to get ionized particles; he discovered new isotopes for years, saving his discoveries for later publication.
Macfarlane accepted a job at McMaster University. There, he named his accidental creation the “helium jet recoil method” and began publishing data he’d stored up. He visited the Soviet Union, where he met John McIntyre, a physics professor at Texas A&M University. Months later, Arthur Martell, chairman of the new chemistry department at Texas A&M, called to recruit Macfarlane, and he took up a full professorship there. The Atomic Energy Commission funded Macfarlane’s nuclear work for a while but ceased after an incidental discovery during one of his nuclear chemistry experiments led to what became known as 252californium plasma desorption mass spectrometry. Macfarlane left the nuclear chemistry field to concentrate on mass spectrometry. He spent fifteen years developing the method that was the first to characterize the mass of large, fragile biomolecules—a method that quickly became well known and widely used to characterize a wide spectrum of biomolecules especially in the pharmacy and medicine fields. Early in the course of the discovery, he obtained National Institutes of Health funding to develop and expand the methodology. As one discovery led to another, his focus drilled down to another new field involving characterization of unusual lipids. He believed in “letting nature tell [a person] what is going on;” this approach has led to his interest in trying to determine who has cardiovascular disease and which components of his or her lipid profile contribute to the disease. One of the most important discoveries involved the characterization of an atherogenic type of the good cholesterol associated with APOC-1 (apolipoprotein C1), using both mass spectrometry and some of the novel platforms his lab developed to characterize lipoproteins.
At the time of this interview, Macfarlane, age seventy-eight, was still unready to retire. Having thrown out the textbook in favor of his own “commentaries,” he continued to teach analytical chemistry his way, incorporating constructivism, conceptual learning, and other elements of educational psychology. Using blood samples from actual patients Macfarlane continued his work on cardiovascular disease. He believes that a person should contribute to the betterment of society, which he thinks he has done. His work, which has received nearly continuous funding, has straddled the boundary between applied and pure science, and he has always wished he could return to “real science.” Macfarlane concludes the interview by saying that his colleagues over the years have been supportive and gracious; most of his collaborations have worked equitably; he has tried to mentor his students while fostering their own creativity. Macfarlane’s advice to young scientists is to listen to nature and to pay attention to small details.
Ronald D. Macfarlane, interviewed by Michael A. Grayson in Texas A & M University on May 26, 2011. Philadelphia: Science History Institute, n.d. Oral History Transcript 0877. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/dhb9sbc.
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