Vol. 4  Iss. 3 
The Chemical Educator 
1999 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc. 

ISSN 1430-4171
S 1430-4171(99) 03302-0 

Book Review  

A Fifty-Year Love Affair with Organic Chemistry

Reviewed by
George B. Kauffman and Laurie M. Kauffman
California State University Fresno, Fresno, CA 93740-8034

A Fifty-Year Love Affair with Organic Chemistry by William S. Johnson. Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams: Autobiographies of Eminent Chemists; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 1998. Illustrations. xxvii + 229 pp. 15.7 x 23.3 cm. $34.95. ISBN 0-8412-1834-X.

This latest volume is the twentieth in Jeffrey I. Seeman's projected 22-volume series of autobiographies of 20th-century organic chemists that began publication in 1990. We are fortunate that Seeman began his series as soon as he did, for nine of his autobiographees - Derek H. R. Barton, Arthur J. Birch, Melvin Calvin, Egbert Havinga, Michael J. S. Dewar, Herman Mark, Tetsue Nozoe, Vladimir Prelog, and William S. Johnson - have already died during the publication of the series to date.

In 1985, when Seeman asked Johnson to write a Profiles volume, his response was initially negative: "I'm sorry to turn you down, but there is no way that I could tell the results of all my students. It would not be fair to leave any of them out," a reflection of his primary concern for the feelings of his former students and collaborators. In fact, according to Seeman, "No contributor to Profiles wrote to as many of his former students for updated information and sent his draft manuscript to so many individuals."

Unfortunately, Johnson's death at the age of 82 on August 19, 1995 prevented him from experiencing the satisfaction of being selected by his colleagues as one of Chemical & Engineering News' "Top 75 Distinguished Contributors to the Chemical Enterprise" or of seeing his Profiles volume in print. Fortunately, his former students, colleagues, and friends, Ted Bartlett and Ray Conrow, reviewed the final manuscript, galleys, and page proofs of this book, and Ted Bartlett, Paul Bartlett, John D. Roberts, and Gilbert Stork contributed an 8-page epilogue that complements Johnson's own words, adds a warm, personal final touch that he was unable to provide, and incorporates his final research, including unpublished results, into the volume. They summarize his two top priorities - people and chemistry: "For cationic cyclization processes... Johnson's name is synonymous with the field .... He was a truly enjoyable person. All who knew him will forever admire his chemical style and personal philosophies."

With great candor and flashes of humor, Johnson describes his travels, honors, and awards such as the Roger Adams (1977) and Arthur C. Cope Awards (1989), hobbies (tennis, gymnastics, and hiking), his research and that of his colleagues, controversies, and consulting, editorial, and writing activities. He also includes personal reminiscences, poems and limericks, anecdotes such as a remark by Stork that "brought the house down, and I laughed so hard as to cause conversion of an incipient hernia into a major rupture requiring surgery soon after I returned home," the state of his health (which was "quite good into his seventies"), and opinions on education, grantsmanship, scientific ethics, creativity, excessive governmental regulations, and future trends in chemistry. He confides to us many of his philosophical observations: "Most chemistry departments are hotbeds of idle gossip, which often spreads all over the world." "It is my feeling, from observing chemists, that people who have exalted opinions of themselves, are generally unhappy individuals." His list of 185 references includes publications through 1994 as well as two left unpublished at the time of his death.

Born in New Rochelle, New York on February 24, 1913, William Summer Johnson had little interest in school as a youngster. His father, after being told by the principal of New Rochelle High School that his son "would never amount to anything," sent him to his own alma mater, the Governor Dummer Academy, a private boys' prep school for Harvard founded in 1763, where he earned top grades. Bill's father lost almost all his possessions in the Great Depression, but Bill was able to continue his schooling with a full scholarship. He attended Amherst College with the aid of a scholarship and various odd jobs such as tending furnace, washing dishes, and playing the saxophone in dance bands (he seriously considered becoming a professional musician). Here he became enamored with organic chemistry, which he taught as an instructor for a year after his graduation magna cum laude in 1936. He then worked with a fellowship under Louis Fieser, who sparked his interest in steroids, at Harvard University, from which he received his M.A. (1938) and Ph.D. (1940) degrees, the latter in record time (22 months in residence).

In 1940 Johnson joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, "one of the best places for organic chemistry at that time," where he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Homer Adkins Professor of Chemistry (1954 - 1960), "the first research professorship in chemistry without any classroom teaching requirements". On December 27, 1940 he married Barbara Allen. Because the couple had no children, she was able to accompany him during his frequent foreign travels. That same year Johnson began to satisfy his predilection for organic synthesis by directing his attention to the total synthesis of steroids, "which soon proved to be the hottest synthetic target of the time." He describes the primitive conditions and the culmination of his early work in the stereoselective synthesis of equilenin. Because "grossly distorted versions have been circulating for years," he also relates a shocking tale of violence that occurred in his laboratory in September 1951 when one of his graduate students (who is not identified) shot and wounded a labmate, "an event which had a significant effect on me and a number of my students, drawing us together in a lasting way."

Although Johnson's main interest was research and teaching and though he had "an ideal setup at Wisconsin with superb facilities," in 1960 he accepted an invitation to become head of, and to upgrade, the Stanford University Chemistry Department. With faculty recruiting as his primary concern, he was able to add Carl Djerassi, Paul J. Flory, Harden M. McConnell, Henry Taube, and Eugene E. van Tamelen to the department, resulting in its spectacular rise from 15th to 5th place in the nation. He offers retrospective observations on how to improve a chemistry department. When asked for advice on attracting top students, Johnson replied, "Add some distinguished scholars to your faculty." He remained at Stanford for the rest of his career, serving as department head for nine years.

Johnson's book reads like a "Who's Who in Organic Chemistry" with descriptions, impressions, and thumbnail sketches of such luminaries as Sir Robert Robinson ("Compulsively competitive, and had paranoid delusions that others were trying to steal his ideas .... What a pity that this man could not relax and enjoy his own great talents."), Robert B. Woodward, Gilbert Stork ("the funniest person I have ever known"), Carl Djerassi, Derek Barton, John D. ("Jack") Roberts, and authors of other Profiles volumes.

During his long and productive career, Johnson made many contributions to contemporary organic chemistry, the genesis and course of which he describes lucidly with extensive use of 110 structural formulas, 75 reaction schemes, and occasional laboratory notebook pages. More than 350 graduate and undergraduate students, postdocs, and visiting professors (many of whom are shown in the 63 formal and informal photographs in the book) worked with him through five and a half decades on problems such as angular methylation; intramolecular Friedel-Crafts acylation reactions; conformational analysis; hydrochrysene approach to the total synthesis of steroids such as aldosterone, testosterone, cholesterol, conessine, progesterone, veratramine, and veratrum alkaloids ("a factor in a major change in attitude regarding steroid synthesis from the two- to the three-dimensional approach"); NMR spectroscopy; biomimetic polyene cyclization studies ("still ... one of our major efforts after 35 years"); solvolysis of sulfonate esters; tricyclization and tetracyclization reactions; corticoid synthesis via polyene cyclization methodology; stereoselective olefin syntheses; ortho ester Claisen condensation ("probably the most useful chemistry to emanate from our laboratories"); olefinic and chloro ketal Claisen reactions; enantiocontrolled generation of chiral centers during C-C bond formation mediated by homochiral acetals; and the fluorine atom as a C-S auxiliary in biomimetic cyclizations. In a 3-page chapter, "Some Concluding Remarks About Our Research," Johnson states, "The reviewed research did not evolve from a master plan; indeed it was largely a matter of following one's nose and trying to look at things that related to areas that were regarded as important issues of the time."

Johnson's entertaining, informative, and modestly priced volume is a gold mine of information and insights for synthetic organic chemists. A first-person saga of an individual committed both to the practice of scientific research and to his profession, it will also be of interest to both present and future generations of students and instructors of chemistry courses and the history of science as well as to all persons concerned with the human aspects of science.