About Organic Syntheses


The story of the Illinois "preps labs" and the evolution of Organic Syntheses represents one of Roger Adams most enduring legacies. During the summer of 1914 a few graduate students were hired to work preparing organic compounds that would be needed during the next year in teaching and research. With the outbreak of World War I in August of 1914, this project assumed new significance and the urgent national situation caused an expansion of the Illinois preps labs in 1915.

One of the first workers in the preps labs was C. S. Marvel, and in September 1917 Marvel and another graduate student were given "manufacturing scholarships" instead of teaching assistantships for the academic year. The workers received 25¢ per hour and eventually some academic credit. Marvel and his associates had to do considerable research on conditions and methods to develop efficient and economical procedures for the preparation of key compounds on a sizable laboratory scale. The Illinois venture was so valuable and successful that after the war much of the synthetic operation was transferred to the Eastman Kodak Co. This was the origin of the Eastman line of chemicals for research and teaching use.

The Illinois work continued in the "summer preps," in which a number of graduate students were paid to prepare chemicals needed for the research program at Illinois. Competition for jobs in the labs was keen over the years, and memories of a summer in preps remained vivid. For a later example: in 1942 H. R. Snyder directed the summer program, and twenty-six workers under two straw bosses labored in two big laboratories throughout the grueling Illinois heat. Huge, multiliter round-bottom flasks seethed on the benches lining the narrow aisles. Ventilation was meager, perhaps only the hot breeze that blew through the open windows. On many off days when black smoke filled the room, a student needed a special stamina to work at top efficiency to cut the cost of his predecessor's preparation. As the summer wore on, hands so black with chemicals that only a "gunk bath" could clean them and a certain aroma that wafted from each worker became the marks of the preps chemist.

The tested procedures of the Illinois laboratory were at first published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Then in 1921 Adams launched the plan of publishing an annual volume of methods for preparing useful organic compounds with volume 1 of Organic Syntheses. Each preparation was to be checked in a laboratory different from that of the submitter, and exact details of procedures, reagents, yields, physical properties, alternative methods of preparation, and the names of submitters and checkers were to be given.

Many organic chemists cooperated in submitting preparations, and they regarded service on the editorial board as an honor. The success and continued vitality of Organic Syntheses shows that it filled a real need. The annual red-backed volumes and the green collective volumes, containing the carefully edited contents of the previous annual issues, are a remarkable record of the development of synthetic organic chemistry since 1921. New reactions, new reagents, new instrumentation, new ideas on reaction mechanisms, new editors, and new submitters have kept the series an active force in organic chemistry.

Adapted from "Roger Adams, Scientist and Statesman"; D. S. Tarbell and A. T. Tarbell.