Adams, Roger

views updated


(b.Boston, Massachusetts, 2 January 1889; dUrbana, Illinois, 6 July 1971)

organic chemistry.

Adams has a special place in the history of American chemistry as a scientific organizer. As head of the department of chemistry at the University of Illinois, and through his close contacts with the chemical industry and the many committees on which he served, he fostered the rapid growth of chemistry in the United States and its integration with industry and government.

Adams was educated at Harvard University, receiving the B.A. in 1909 and the 1912. under C. L.Jackson. He then spent a year in Germany, studying with Otto Diels and Richard Willstatter—the leading exponents, respectively, of synthetic organic chemistry and the chemistry of natural products. Adams own interests continued in these traditional lines of structure, stereochemistry, and synthetic methods, little influenced by the increasingly important applications of physical chemistry to organic reaction mechanisms in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

In 1913 Adams returned to Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow with Jackson (then emeritus), apparently intending to pursue a career in research—which at the time meant an industrial career. An unexpected vacancy in 1914 led to his becoming an instructor in organic chemistry at Harvard. In 1916 he accepted an offer from William A. Noyes of an assistant professorship at the University of Illinois. He was promoted to professor in 1919, and in 1926 succeeded Noyes as director of the department of chemistry and chemical engineering, which he headed for nearly thirty years. Noyes had made Illinois the leading school of organic chemistry in the United States, where physical chemistry generally took first place. Under Adams, Illinois expanded and became the most prolific source of chemists for the chemical industry.

The phenomenal growth of American chemistry during Adams’ lifetime was largely a result of the demand for research chemists in industry, following World War I. With this new social relation came a marked change in the style of chemists. Noyes, for example, was an exponent of “pure” chemistry. He represented the generation of chemists, imbued with the ideal of German university science, that won chemistry a place as an academic discipline in American universities, in the face of strong traditions of “applied” science. Noyes’s call in 1907 to Illinois, a land grant college with a very heavy emphasis on applied, technological science, was a measure of the spreading influence of the pure science ideal. Applied chemistry and chemical engineering continued to be important at Illinois under the leadership of Samuel W. Parr. But Parr and Noyes represented two distinctly separate traditions.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s this sharp distinction disappeared. University chemistry reestablished strong links to industrial institutions. Industries demanded more chemists; and, more important, demanded Ph.D’s with academic style and training. Industrial work became attractive for chemists with academic tastes, as researchers or consultants. Adams did not initiate this trend but he did facilitate it, hastening and smoothing the meshing of the academic and industrial worlds.

During World War I, Adams turned a summer project for producing chemicals for classroom use into pilot-plant production of organic chemicals for war and industrial use, to replace lost German sources. This operation was continued after the war, to introduce students to industrial operation. Bulletins on synthetic methods developed at Illinois were issued, and in 1921 they became the academic monograph series Chemical Syntheses, which Adams edited for nineteen years.

Adams was impressed by the promise of organized science during the war. In the 1920’s the demand for industrial chemists led to a rapid expansion of the department and to changes in the chemical curriculum, especially after Adams assumed chairmanship of the department. The many specialized courses typical of Noyes’s period were eliminated from both undergraduate and graduate curricula. Emphasis was put on fundamentals, on the assumption that specific problem areas were best learned in industrial laboratories. Curricula were upgraded, and a ph.D. program in chemical engineering was initiated. While the emphasis was heavily on training for industrial research, the immediately vocational aspect was dropped. The same training was given to prospective industrial researchers and university teachers. Under Adams’ direction, industrial training became more scientific, and academic training more attuned to industrial needs. The conflicting traditions of Noyes’s generation merged. In 1954 Adams epitomized this new mode of chemistry:

The duty and one of the primary responsibilities [of universities] is to train chemists for industry. If the trained chemists from the universities should not be able to find jobs, it would not be long before the number of students in chemistry would dwindle to a trickle and scientific research, which in this country stems in large measure from the efforts of graduate students, would likewise diminish rapidly in volume. Industry, on the other hand, has the university as its only source of scientific personnel. The universities and industry are mutually interdependent.

This symbiotic relationship became the dominant pattern in American chemistry. As Adams’ students entered positions of influence, demand for Illinois chemists increased. The department became an assembly line for the production of industrial chemists.

Adams served as a director of the American Chemical Society in 1930-1935 and 1944-1950, and as president in 1935. He was a member of the Executive Committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science from 1941 to 1945 and from 1947 to 1951, and was president in 1950. He was also a director of the Council for Agricultural and Chemurgic Research, an organization devoted to the application of chemistry to agricultural industry.

Adams had a role in virtually every major development in the national organization of science in America from World War I into the era of government patronage. His involvement with government dates from 1918, when he served in the Chemical Warfare Service. Elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1929, he served on the Council (1931-1937), as chairman of the Chemical Section (1938-1941), and on the National Research Council Fellowship Board (1928-1941). Adams was a member of the short-lived Science Advisory Board in 1934-1935, an early attempt at advising the president on science. From 1941 to 1946 he served on the National Defense Research Committee, which was responsible for organizing war research in chemistry and chemical engineering. From 1954 to 1960 he was a member of the board of directors of the National Science Foundation. Adams actively represented the interest of chemistry in the expanding national science system.

Adams was also influential in relationships with private patrons. In 1950 he oversaw transfer of the income of Universal Oil Products to the American Chemical society, as the Petroleum Research Fund. Three years later he chaired an advisory committee of the Sloan Foundation that initiated a program to aid basic research in the physical sciences.

Adams’ research likewise reveals his organizational style. His main interest was in methods of organic synthesis, and he contributed many standard recipes to Organic Syntheses and to Organic Reactions, which he also helped to found. His synthetic work focused on aromatic compounds, important in the dye industry. The “Adams catalyst,” a colloidal platinum oxide, became standard for hydrogenations. Probably his most influential academic work was his systematic investigation, in the late 1920’s and 1930’s of the stereochemistry of substituted biphenyl and biaryl compounds, which, owing to sterically hindered rotation, can be resolved into optical isomers. This work raised basic theoretical questions concerning the relationship between steric and electronic effects, which were then attracting keen interest among physical organic chemists. Adams’ approach owed less to these theoretical concerns than to more classical problems of organic synthesis and stereochemistry.

Adams’ best-known work on natural products is that on the marijuana alkaloids, which he took up in the late 1930’s and 1940’s at the request of the Narcotics Bureau. He isolated and synthesized tetrahydrocannabinol and several of its analogues. He also elucidated and synthesized chaulmoogric and hydnocarpic acids, the active principles of chaulmoogra oil, a folk remedy for leprosy; gossypol, the toxic agent in cottonseed oil; and the Senecio and Crotalaria alkaloids, which poison grazing cattle. Adams synthesized a number of local anesthetics, such as Butyn. A characteristic feature of all this work is its relevance to the practical concerns of the drug industry.

Adams received ten honorary degrees, twenty-four medals andawards from American and foreign scientific societies, and honorary membership in nine chemical societies and the National Academy of Sciences. A truer measure of his historical importance, however, is the number of his students in high positions in the academic world and in industrial chemistry, and the degree to which the style and institutional structure of American chemistry approaches his vision.


I. Original Works. Adams’ writings include “Bacteriological Action of Certain Organic Acids Toward Mycobacterium leperae and Other Acid-Fast Bacteria.” in Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapy, 45 (1932), 121-162; “The Stereochemistry of Diphenyls and Analogous Compounds,” in Chemical Reviews, 12 (1933), 161-385; “Marihuana,” in Harvey Lectures, 37 (1941-1942), 168-197; and “Universities and Industry in Science,” in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, 46 (1954), 506-510, the Perkin Medal address.

Several boxes of Adams’ personal papers have been deposited at the University of Illinois archives.

II. Secondary Literature. See Nelson J. Leonard, “Roger Adams,” in Journal of the American Chemical Society, 91 (1969), a-d; and C. S. Marvel, “Roger Adams,” in Yearbook. American Philosophical Society for 1974, 111-114. University of Illinois, Special Circular of the Department of Chemistry 1916- 1927 (Urbana, 1927); and University of Illinois, Department of Chemistry, Developments During the Period 1927-1941 (Urbana, 1941), contain useful historical material, policy statements, and complete bibliographies of department publications to 1940.

Robert E. Kohler