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Oral history interview with Alex G. Harrison

  • 2013-Nov-13

Oral history interview with Alex G. Harrison

  • 2013-Nov-13

Alex G. Harrison was born in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, one of two sons. His parents were farmers but had the Scottish appreciation for education. Harrison attended a one-room school, where his aunt was teacher. He won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario and decided to study chemistry. Harrison completed both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. Next, he went to McMaster University for a PhD. He worked on thyroid function and thyroxine in Harry Thode’s lab, getting a much-cited publication. The sulfur cycle introduced him to mass spectrometry. His postdoctoral applications of his PhD work, still in Thode’s lab, garnered him two more publications. He did a second postdoc on free radical mass spectrometry with Fred Lossing at National Research Council (NRC). He married during this time, and he took up skiing at Paul Kebarle’s urging.

Harrison’s first academic position was as lecturer at the University of Toronto, where he began research into ion molecule reactions. He earned tenure, taught, and became associate chair of the department. With funding from the NRC, Harrison was able to purchase a double-focusing mass spectrometer and set up a service lab. A chemical ionization (CI) mass spectrometer enabled him to analyze a broader array of compounds. Harrison became active in the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), serving on the board of directors. He organized a regional lab at McMaster. When he received the Izaak Walton Killam Research Fellowship he was able to dedicate two years solely to research; he began working on negative ion chemistry and produced another much-cited publication. Reactive collisions and fast atom bombardment (FAB) and peptides and b ions have occupied him since. Taking early retirement, Harrison was able to keep his lab and continue to work on b ions. He still maintains collaborations with Talat Yalcin, Bela Paizs, and Benjamin Bythell, and is still publishing. Harrison discusses international contributions to the field of mass spectrometry. He feels that current mass spec work is perhaps too much focused on development, rather than research. He believes that having trained many good mass spectrometrists is one of his major contributions. He credits his mentors for giving him encouragement and the freedom to explore; and he also praises his wife. He describes his own mentoring style. He celebrates that there are more women in science, especially environmental science. He considers mass spectrometry less competitive than other fields, and more collegial and cooperative. Though the field is radically changed from his early days, he believes that mass spectrometry has much still to provide to science, that its future is neither predictable nor stagnant.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 100 pages
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 0905

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • April 01, 1931
  • Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
  • September 07, 2018


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1952 University of Western Australia BSc Chemistry
1953 University of Western Ontario MSc Chemistry
1956 McMaster University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

McMaster University

  • 1956 to 1957 Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Chemistry

National Research Council Canada

  • 1957 to 1959 Postdoctoral Fellow, Chemistry

University of Toronto

  • 1959 to 1960 Lecturer, Department of Chemistry
  • 1960 to 1962 Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry
  • 1962 to 1967 Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry
  • 1967 to 1993 Professor, Department of Chemistry
  • 1971 to 1974 Associate Chair, Department of Chemistry
  • 1993 to 2014 Professor Emeritus, Department of Chemistry

University of Warwick

  • 1974 Visiting Professor, Department of Molecular Sciences

École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne

  • 1982 Professeur Invité, Institut de Chimie Physique

University of Colorado Boulder

  • 1989 Visiting Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry


Year(s) Award
1962 to 1964 Alfred P. Sloan Fellow Award
1971 Noranda Lecture Award, Chemical Institute of Canada
1971 Fellow, Chemical Institute of Canada
1980 Visiting Distinguished Alumni Lecturer, McMaster University
1985 to 1987 Killam Research Fellow
1986 Maccoll Lecturer, British Mass Spectrometry Society
1995 Canadian Society for Mass Spectrometry Award of Excellence
2005 to 2014 Alex Harrison Graduate Fellowship in Analytical Mass Spectrometry, University of Toronto

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PDF — 1.2 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

2 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads