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C&EN Special Issue: 85th Anniversary Of The Priestley Medal - Volume 86, Number 14, April 7, 2008

1946: Roger Adams (1889–1971)

The 1946 Priestley Medalist was an important catalyst in the coming-of-age of the U.S. chemical enterprise between World War I and World War II. During his 56 years at the University of Illinois, Roger Adams worked tirelessly to transform the model of advanced chemistry education in the U.S. from Ira Remsen’s (1923 Priestley Medalist) German model to something distinctly different—something more democratic and recognizably American.

Adams received an A.B. from Harvard University with a major in chemistry and a minor in mining in 1909. He stayed on at Harvard for a Ph.D., first with H. A. Torrey and, after Torrey’s death, with C. L. Jackson, Latham Clarke, and G. S. Forbes. As the outstanding Ph.D. of 1912, Adams received a fellowship that allowed him to travel to Europe.

That European tour was pivotal in Adams’ development of his educational philosophy. According to the National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir of his life, Adams “clearly found the European university system distasteful; one professor in each department or institute controlled absolutely the activities of all research students and junior staff members.”

After returning to the U.S., he took a position at Harvard as an instructor. In 1916, however, Adams got an offer he couldn’t refuse. William A. Noyes (1935 Priestley Medalist), the University of Illinois chemistry department head, invited him join the department as an assistant professor. In addition to teaching, Adams’ research program included, most notably, the development of platinum oxide catalysis for hydrogenation reactions, synthesis of anthraquinones and chaulmoogric acid, and work on local anesthetics.

Early on at Illinois, Adams took charge of the Organic Chemical Manufactures, more commonly known as “prep labs,” from C. G. Derick. These labs were vital because, in the days before Aldrich Chemicals, chemists had to make their own starting materials. The labs provided synthetic methods for organic compounds that had been cut off during World War I. These methods were eventually folded into the annual publication Organic Syntheses, which is familiar to any organic chemist. Adams edited 50 of these essential annual volumes.

He became chair of the department in 1926. During his tenure at Illinois, which ended in 1957, he trained about 250 chemistry Ph.D.s and innumerable postdocs. His method was to start his students on projects in which they were likely to succeed and could be quickly published. The confidence that young chemists got after a first successful publication, Adams believed, would prompt them to try more difficult work.

Another contrast between Adams and many of his predecessors in chemistry was that Adams didn’t shun industrial work. Far from it, he developed close ties to the industrial chemical research community. In his Perkin Medal Address, he noted that “30 years ago, the leaders in our university chemistry departments considered it a pollution of the science for an academic man to have industrial contacts or to undertake research that smacked of the applied.”

He continued, “Today the difference in the character of the research in the chemical industries and universities is becoming increasingly less significant.” And some of his students who joined industry were spectacular. One of them, Wallace H. Carothers, who worked at DuPont from 1928 to 1937, discovered nylon and neoprene rubber. In 1954, Adams wrote that his “biggest contribution to chemical industry has been very indirect through many of the students who have been eminently successful in industry.”

Adams believed in teaching by example, saying that the “professor should give more credit to the student than he deserves for whatever he may have contributed to the investigation, no matter how minor. This will illustrate to the student, by example, a vital characteristic that a man must have to become a really successful executive—the encouragement and giving of credit to subordinates.”—Linda Raber

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award