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Oral history interview with Paul Kebarle

  • 2013-May-22

Oral history interview with Paul Kebarle

  • 2013-May-22

Paul Kebarle was born in Bulgaria, where his father was a business man and his mother a housewife. Kebarle escaped to Czechoslovakia, ostensibly for treatment for scoliosis, thence to Switzerland, where he studied nonstop to pass the entrance exam for ETH. At ETH he majored in chemical engineering. Kebarle then became a lab instructor at University of British Columbia, where he obtained his PhD in chemistry under Allen Bryce, studying mass spectrometry (MS). He taught himself MS by fixing an instrument made by the National Research Council (NRC); he had to learn glassblowing to plug leaks. He began with pyrolysis MS and built the more specific and comprehensive gas chromatography-mass spectroscope (GC-MS).

Two years of postdoctoral work with Fred Lossing at the NRC produced many publications, some amplifying his thesis on butene-1. Kebarle was next hired as professor at the University of Alberta, where he continued his high rate of important publications, until – he says – his work “disappears” because it has been internalized in the discipline of chemistry. He worked on electrospray MS, publishing with Udo Verkerk what he considers his most important paper. Mandatory retirement age pushed him into a smaller office, but a substantial grant has kept him working and publishing for many years. He and his wife maintain an active outdoor life, biking, walking, and skiing.

Kebarle talks about his family, former colleagues, and the impact of mass spectroscopy on biology. He “fell into” science and urges young people to try it and to work hard at it. He did not experience competition in his field. Kebarle believes that MS will continue to be useful, but that it will not provide the earth-shattering discoveries of the past.

Karl Kopecky added his notes on Kebarle. He explains that Kebarle worked in high-pressure MS, electrospray MS, and ionization MS. He claims that Kebarle’s work is so important that it forms the core of the subject in all standard chemistry textbooks. Kebarle’s work has implications for thermodynamics, computational chemistry, protein folding, and drug interactions. A humble man, Kebarle made nothing of his more than thirty articles that have been cited more than one hundred times.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 75 pages
  • 03:22:00
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

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 0899

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • September 21, 1926
  • Sofia, Bulgaria
  • July 30, 2019
  • Edmonton, Alberta, Canada


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1952 Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich Dipl. ETH Honors Chemical Engineering
1956 University of British Columbia PhD Chemisty

Professional Experience

National Research Council Canada

  • 1956 to 1958 Postdoctoral Fellow

University of Alberta

  • 1958 to 2014 Professor


Year(s) Award
1965 Member, New York Academy of Sciences
1969 Fellow, Chemical Institute of Canada
1978 Fellow, Royal Society of Canada
1980 Member, Sigma Xi Research Society
1980 Award for Excellence, Province of Alberta
1984 McCalla Professor, University of Alberta
1986 CIC Medal, Chemical Institute of Canada
1989 J. Gordan Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research, University of Alberta
1994 Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry, American Chemical Society
1994 Fred P. Lossing Award, Canadian Society for Mass Spectrometry

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PDF — 922 KB

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

3 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads