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John L. Holmes

Oral history interview with John L. Holmes

  • 2013-Dec-12

Oral history interview with John L. Holmes

  • 2013-Dec-12

John L. Holmes was born in North London, United Kingdom, the son of a civil servant and a stay-at-home mother. From an early age, Holmes was encouraged to read, write and experiment. World War II disrupted his education, when the pupils of the Westcroft School were evacuated from London to the West Country, but by Christmas 1939 Holmes had returned to London to be with his parents. He remained in London for the duration of the war, and vividly recalls the London Blitz.

A mere ‘pass’ in chemistry on his Higher School examination meant that Holmes was bound for employment, rather than university. He accepted a position as a trainee analytical chemist at Glaxo Laboratories, where he learned to assay penicillin samples and to devise new analytical methods for novel synthetic products. While working at Glaxo, he pursued his education one day and three evenings per week at Acton Technical College, eventually passing the London External BSc examination in chemistry. His score earned him admission to graduate studies at University College London. There he studied thermal decomposition of alkyl iodides under the mentorship of Allan Maccoll.

After earning his PhD, Holmes fulfilled his National Service requirement at the National Coal Board then took up a postdoc in Ottawa at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada, doing photochemistry of trifluoromethyl radicals with aromatic substrates. It was at NRC that he met Fred Lossing and got his introduction to mass spectrometry. After a frustrating two-year interlude at the University of Edinburgh, Holmes returned to Ottawa, accepting a position as assistant professor in the Chemistry Department at the University of Ottawa, where (with the exception of sabbaticals and visiting professorships abroad) he spent the remainder of his career. He began his work at Ottawa on the kinetics of hydrogen atom reactions, but soon found himself volunteering to take on a leadership role in the department’s nascent center for mass spectrometry. Throughout the interview, Holmes recounts his evolving research interests, his collaborations with Fred Lossing, Hans Terlouw and others, his teaching and mentoring work, as well as the changing funding climate in Canada, the growth of the University of Ottawa, his experiences at international scientific meetings, and his work as editor of Organic Mass Spectrometry. Holmes concludes the interview with a discussion of his passion for sailing.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 160 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 0906

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • November 29, 1931
  • Cricklewood (London), United Kingdom


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1954 University of London BSc Chemistry
1957 University of London PhD Chemistry
1983 University of London DSc

Professional Experience

National Research Council Canada

  • 1958 to 1960 Postdoctoral Fellow

University of Edinburgh

  • 1960 to 1961 ICI Fellow
  • 1961 to 1962 Lecturer

University of Ottawa

  • 1962 to 1963 Assistant Professor, Chemistry Department
  • 1965 to 1973 Associate Professor, Chemistry Department
  • 1973 to 1997 Full Professor, Chemistry Department
  • 1997 to 2017 Emeritus Professor

University of Ghana

  • 1971 Nuffield Visiting Professor

University College, London

  • 1973 to 1974 Sabbatical leave

Rijksuniversiteit te Utrecht

  • 1979 Overbeek Visiting Professor
  • 1988 Visiting Professor

University of Adelaide

  • 1984 Distinguished Visiting Scholar

Australian National University

  • 1984 Visiting Research Fellow
  • 1993 Visiting Professor

Universität Bern

  • 1993 International Exchange Fellow


Year(s) Award
1970 Fellow, Chemical Institute of Canada
1980 Barringer Research Award, Spectroscopy Society of Canada
1986 Fellow, Royal Society of Canada
1988 Award for Excellence in Research, University of Ottawa
1989 Chemical Institute of Canada Medal
1990 Herzberg Award, Spectroscopy Society of Canada
1998 Life Member, British Mass Spectrometry Society
2000 F.P. Lossing Award, Canadian Society for Mass Spectrometry
2008 Fellow and Life Member, Royal Society of Chemistry

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PDF — 1.3 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