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Oral history interview with Frank H. Westheimer

  • 1979-Jan-04 (First session)
  • 1979-Jan-05 (Second session)

Oral history interview with Frank H. Westheimer

  • 1979-Jan-04 (First session)
  • 1979-Jan-05 (Second session)

In this interview, Frank Westheimer begins with his family, his childhood and early education in Baltimore, his undergraduate days at Dartmouth, his decision to go into chemistry, and his choice of Harvard for graduate work. Next, he covers his years as a graduate student at Harvard and talks about his research with James Conant and Elmer Kohler, the faculty at Harvard and the courses they taught, and his summer work with Alsoph Corwin at Johns Hopkins. He also talks at length about his early interest in biochemistry, his view of theoretical organic chemistry in the mid-1930s and the opportunities for research open to him, the development of theoretical organic chemistry in the early part of the twentieth century, and the publications of some of the early scientists. This is followed by a description of his year as a National Research Fellow at Columbia, his research, his colleagues, and more on the development of his interest in biochemical problems.

Westheimer continues with the offer of a position at the University of Chicago from Morris Kharasch, and includes an extensive discussion of the university, his research, and his collaboration with John Kirkwook, Joe Mayer and Birgit Vennesland. In the next part of the interview, he comments on his selection and training of students and discusses a number of former students who have been successful in research careers. The interview concludes with more discussion of physical organic chemistry, past, present and future; a review of his work on the hydrolysis of phosphate esters and pseudorotation; comments on the future of organic chemistry; and a review of the Westheimer Report, the analysis of American chemistry by the National Academy of Sciences.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 130 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

Leon Gortler is a professor of chemistry at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He holds AB and MS degrees from the University of Chicago and a PhD from Harvard University where he worked with Paul Bartlett. He has long been interested in the history of chemistry, in particular the development of physical organic chemistry, and has conducted over fifty oral and videotaped interviews with major American chemists.

Institutional location

Oral history number 0046

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • January 15, 1912
  • Baltimore, Maryland, United States
  • April 14, 2007
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1932 Dartmouth College AB Chemistry
1933 Harvard University MA Chemistry
1935 Harvard University PhD Chemistry (mentors: James B. Conant, Elmer P. Kohler)

Professional Experience

Columbia University

  • 1935 to 1936 National Research Fellow

University of Chicago

  • 1936 to 1941 Instructor
  • 1941 to 1946 Assistant Professor
  • 1946 to 1948 Associate Professor
  • 1948 to 1954 Professor

United States. Office of Scientific Research and Development. National Defense Research Committee

  • 1944 to 1945 Research Supervisor

Harvard University

  • 1953 to 1954 Visiting Professor
  • 1954 to 1960 Professor
  • 1959 to 1962 Department Chairman
  • 1960 to 1982 Loeb Professor of Chemistry
  • 1982 to 1983 Senior Professor
  • 1983 Loeb Professor of Chemistry Emeritus

National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)

  • 1964 to 1965 Chairman, Committee to Survey Chemistry


Year(s) Award
1954 Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences
1970 Willard Gibbs Medal, Chicago Section, American Chemical Society
1970 James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, Northeastern Section, American Chemical Society
1976 Theodore William Richards Medal, Northeastern Section, American Chemical Society
1980 Richard Kokes Award, National Academy of Sciences
1980 Charles Frederick Chandler Award
1981 Lewis C. Rosenstiel Award, Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center
1982 Robert A. Welch Award, The Robert A. Welch Foundation
1982 Arthur C. Cope Award, American Chemical Society
1982 William H. Nichols Medal, New York Section, American Chemical Society
1983 Christopher Ingold Medal, The Chemical Society of London
1988 Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society

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PDF — 8.0 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

15 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads