has a special place in the history of chemistry in the United States.
As head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois for
nearly thirty years and through his close contacts with industry, "The
Chief" promoted the development of chemistry in the United States
and cooperation with industry and government. In addition, Adams trained
a generation of chemists, serving as research director for 198 doctoral
degree recipients and many more postdoctoral research associates and fellows.
Adams completed his undergraduate and graduate education at Harvard University,
receiving his B.A. in 1909 and Ph.D. in 1912. He then spent a year in
Germany studying under the leading experts in synthetic organic chemistry
and the chemistry of natural products. In 1913 Adams returned to Harvard
as a postdoctoral fellow, with the apparent intention to pursue a career
in research, which at that time meant working in industry. But in 1914,
a sudden vacancy led to his appointment as an instructor in organic chemistry
at Harvard. In 1916 he accepted an offer from William
Noyes of an assistant professorship at Illinois. He stayed for fifty-six
years. He was promoted to professor in 1919, and upon Noyes retirement
in 1926 he became department head. Under Noyes leadership Illinois
became the foremost school of chemistry in the United States. Under Adams
stewardship, Illinois expanded and became the leading institution training
chemists for the chemical industry.
Adams helped to break down the distinction between the worlds of the academy
and industry. Before the First World War, two separate traditions existed
in chemistry: the world of "pure" science competing with that
of applied, technological science. At Illinois, the first tradition was
represented by Noyes, the second by Samuel Parr.
In the 1920s this sharp distinction began to break down, in part because
of the demand for research chemists in industry. Industry not only demanded
chemists; it demanded chemists with Ph.D.s. For chemists, a career
in industry became attractive. Adams became head of the department at
Illinois at the precise time these trends were occurring, and he helped
smooth the merging of the academic and industrial worlds.
During the First World War, Adams transformed a summer project to produce
chemicals for classroom use into a pilot program for the production of
organic chemicals for war and industrial use,
to replace German sources no longer available. The program continued after
the war as Organic Chemical Manufactures, with bulletins issued on synthetic
methods developed at Illinois. In 1921 this became the academic monograph
series Organic Syntheses, which Adams edited, and in 1942 he helped
found Organic Reactions.
The demand for industrial chemists in the 1920s led to a rapid expansion
of the department of chemistry and to changes in the curriculum. Emphasis
was placed on learning the fundamentals of chemistry, with the assumption
that specific areas were best learned in industrial laboratories. A Ph.D.
program in chemical engineering was instituted. Under Adams, academic
training became more sensitive to the needs of industry and industrial
training became more scientific. As Adams-trained students assumed prominent
positions in industry, the demand for Illinois chemists increased. One
of Adams most famous students was Wallace
Carothers who invented nylon at DuPont.
Adams served as a director of the American Chemical Society for two separate
terms and as president in 1935. He was elected to the National Academy
of Sciences in 1929. From 1941 to 1946 he served on the National Defense
Research Committee, 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 contributed many recipes to Organic Syntheses and Organic
Reactions over his long career. His synthetic work as a researcher
focused on aromatic compounds, important in the dye industry. The "Adams
Catalyst," a colloidal platinum oxide, became standard for hydrogenations.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Adams investigated the stereochemistry of substituted
biphenyl and biaryl compounds, which can be resolved into optical isomers.
This research raised questions about the relationship between steric and
electronic effects, an issue of concern among physical organic chemists.
Adams best-known work on natural products is his research on marijuana
alkaloids, which he undertook in the late 1930s at the behest of the Narcotics
Bureau. He isolated and synthesized tetrahydrocannabinol and several of
Adams received ten honorary degrees, twenty-four medals and awards from
American and foreign scientific societies, and honorary membership in
nine chemical societies. His historical importance can probably best be
measured by the number of his students who assumed leading roles in the
university and in industry. His contributions to the University of Illinois
were acknowledged by the naming of the "east chemistry" building
in his honor, Roger Adams Laboratory, in 1972.