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Roger Adams

Roger Adams (January 2, 1889 – July 6, 1971) was an American organic chemist. He is best-known for the eponymous Adams' catalyst, but also greatly influenced graduate education in America, taught over 250 Ph.D. students and postgraduate students, and served the U.S. as a scientist at the highest levels during World War I and World War II.


Early life

Adams was born in Boston, Massachusetts and grew up in a prosperous neighborhood in South Boston, the last child in a gifted family that included Adams's three older sisters (two went to Radcliffe College and one to Smith College). Adams was part of the prominent Adams family, and was descended from John Adams's grandfather.

Adams attending Boston Latin School and Cambridge Latin High School (now called Cambridge Rindge and Latin). In 1900, the family moved to Cambridge, which was closer to the two colleges.

Adams entered Harvard University in 1905 and completed the requirements for a bachelor's degree in three years. In his first year he earned a John Harvard Honorary Scholarship by getting four As, and in his last year he took advanced courses and began research in organic chemistry under H.A. Torrey. His years at Harvard were undistinguished, earning high grades in chemistry (his major) and mining (his minor). After graduation from Harvard in 1909 he worked towards his Ph.D. at Radcliffe College supported by a teaching assistantship. Torrey died unexpectedly in 1910, so Adams finished his Ph.D. under Charles Loring Jackson, G.S. Forbes, and Latham Clarke. As an outstanding Ph.D. of 1912, Adams received a Parker Traveling Scholarship for 1912 and 1913, which he used to work at the laboratory of Emil Fischer and Otto Diels in Berlin, Germany and that of Richard Willstätter in Dahlem outside of Berlin.

After returning from Europe in 1913, Adams returned to Harvard and worked as a research assistant for Charles L. Jackson for $800 a year. During the next three years he taught organic chemistry at Harvard and Radcliffe, initiated the first elementary organic chemistry laboratory at Harvard and began his own research program. Several other prominent contemporaries of Adams at Harvard Graduate School were Elmer Keiser Bolton, Farrington Daniels, Frank C. Whitmore, James B. Sumner and James Bryant Conant.

Academic career

In 1916, Adams accepted an offer of an assistant professorship from William A. Noyes, head of the chemistry department at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He began a career at UIUC that would span 56 years. Adams succeeded Noyes as department head in 1926, and remained in that position until 1954. During this time, Adams made several well-known discoveries.

Roger Adams and his students developed the so called Adams' catalyst, which is one of the most readily-prepared and active catalysts for hydrogenation reactions. The catalyst can be prepared by fusing sodium nitrate with chloroplatinic acid or ammonium chloroplatinate. Adams's group also developed a low-pressure apparatus for using the catalyst, which had a profound effect in the synthesis and structural elucidation of organic compounds as well as biochemical compounds.

Working at the Noyes Laboratory, Adams and his more than 250 graduate students made many significant discoveries:

  • Synthesis of chloralkyl esters by combining aldehydes and acyl chlorides.
  • That aliphatic acid anhydrides effectively form ketones in the Friedel-Crafts reaction.
  • Determination of the structure of disalicylaldehyde and dehydro-acetic acid.
  • A method of synthesizing polyhydroxyanthraquinones with precisely-known stereochemistry using phthalides.
  • Determination of the structures of leprosy drugs chaulmoogric acid and hydnocarpic acid and the synthesis of their dihydro derivatives.
  • Determination of the structure of gossypol for the cottonseed industry.
  • Isolated and identified cannabidiol from Cannabis sativa, showed its relationship to cannabinol and tetrahydrocannabinol .
  • Synthesized cannabinol and tetrahydrocannabinol analogs.
  • Studies of Senecio and Crotalaria alkaloids that opened two fields of study:pyrrolizidine and large-ring diester chemistry.

At UIUC, Adams took charge of the Organic Chemical Manufactures ("prep labs") started by his predecessor C.G. Derick for the synthesis of organic compounds from Germany that were cut off by the Blockade of Germany. The lab was expanded and reorganized with the help of students, particularly E.H. Volwiler and C.S. (Speed) Marvel. Strict cost accounting procedures were implemented in the lab, so that it became a financial as well as scientific success. The tested procedures developed in the lab led to the annual publication of the journal Organic Synthesis, which James Bryant Conant referred to as the "Adams Annual."

Adams vigorously researched methods of preparing local anaesthetics with Oliver Kamm who was also on the faculty of UIUC and a consultant to Abbott Laboratories in a relationship that lasted into the 1960s. E.H. Volwiler, Adams' first Ph.D. student, joined Abbott as a chemist in 1918. In 1917, Adams was drawn into research for the U.S. Army into poison gases at American University in Washington, D.C.; There he and Conant headed research groups and E.P. Kohler, an old faculty friend of Adams from Harvard, was in charge of the Offense Section.

Adams' return to UIUC began a period (1918-1926) of intense research, with 45 Ph.D. students that resulted in 73 publications.

In July 1940, Vannevar Bush was working to mobilize American scientists in the World War IIwar effort. Bush wanted to bring Adams into the National Defense Research Committee that he was organizing for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many believed that Adams was the leading organic chemist in the United States, and Adams friend and former Harvard colleague James Bryant Conant was intent on Adams leading the effort to develop new explosives and create synthetic chemicals. However, Bush's efforts were stalled in getting Adams a security clearance. The Army cleared Adams, but the Navy refused.

At this time the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover was doing surveillance on "suspect American citizens" and had been keeping a file on Roger Adams. The FBI had informed Hoover that Adams was a leading member of an apparent Communist front group called the Lincoln's Birthday Committee for the Advancement of Science. The FBI also had information that Adams was a contributing member of a suspect Japanese propaganda magazine. Adams was also suspect in the eyes of the FBI because he was doing studies into the chemical mechanisms by which the plant cannabis sativa (marijuana) affects the brain. The plant had been effectively banned by the passage of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. For the purposes of this research Adams had obtained red oil extract of the plant legally from the United States Department of the Treasury. In 1939, this was the main focus of Adams' work. For these reasons the Office of Naval Intelligence said it would never approve security clearance for Adams.

Hoover saw that political pressure was building to give Adams security clearance and that the FBI might have its facts wrong, so eventually backed down, indicating that "Professor Adams" is a very common name and there may be some confusion. However, Hoover continued to be suspicious of the political loyalties of the scientists involved in the World War II mobilization because of their internationalist worldview.

In the end Roger Adams got his security clearance and took charge of a successful effort to manufacture synthetic rubber to replace natural rubber supplies from the Far East that had been cut off by the war. This was a continuation of the work done by E.K. Bolton (Adams's friend from Harvard) at DuPont.

In Adams's case, the FBI had much of its information wrong. Adams was politically active, but not affiliated with any group called the Lincoln's Birthday Committee for the Advancement of Science. He was a member of the Lincoln's Birthday Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom (LBCDIF), which was founded by the prominent anthropologist Franz Boas to discredit Nazi racial policies.

Awards and Honors


  • D. Stanley Tarbell and Ann Tracy Tarbell, Roger Adams January 2, 1889-July 6, 1971, in Biographical Memoirs ed. National Academy Of Sciences, National Academies Press (December 1, 1982), ISBN 0-309-03287-3
  • The Essex Antiquarian, published by The Essex antiquarian
  • Dictionary of Scientific Biography: 1970-1990, Charles Scribner's Sons; vol. 15, p1-3.
  • Journal of Chemistry 1979, 56, 163-165.
  • Journal of the American Chemical Society 1969, 91, a-d.
  • Proceedings of the Welch Foundation Conference 1977, 20, 204-228.
  • D. S. Tarbell, A. T. Roger Adams Scientist and Statesman, American Chemical Society: 1981.
  • Isis 1980, 71, 620-626.
  • American Philosophical Society Yearbook 1974, pp.111-114.
  • National Cyclopedia of American Biography: 1921-1984, James T. White & Co., vol. G, p336-337.
  • McGraw Hill Modern Men of Science, McGraw-Hill (1966) vol. 1, p4-5
  • The Hexagon 1979, 70, 9-17.
  • American Chemists and Chemical Engineers, Miles, W. D., Ed., American Chemical Society (1976) p4-5.
  • Ronald E. Doel, Roger Adams: Linking University Science with Policy on the World Stage, Chapter 9 of No Boundaries ed. Lillian Hoddeson, University of Illinois Press (May 1, 2004) ISBN 0-252-02957-7
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Roger_Adams". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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