Roger Adams arrived at the University of Illinois in 1916 and enjoyed an illustrious long association with the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Beginning as an Assistant Professor, his career at Illinois spanned fifty-six years, until his death in 1971. "The Chief" served as Department Head from 1926-1954. He served as personal research director for 198 Illinois PhD recipients and many more postdoctoral research associates and fellows. While the education and training of these chemists were his primary concern, he selected their research problems for interest and potential significance.
Innumerable methods of organic synthesis and natural products were discovered by Adams and his students. Among the first achievements were the finding that the combination of aldehydes and acid chlorides produced chloralkyl esters, and the recognition that aliphatic acid anhydrides served very effectively for the formation of ketones in the Friedel-Crafts reaction. The structures of disalicylaldehyde and dehydro-acetic acid, which had puzzled scientists for decades, were established in the Noyes Laboratory by Adams and his students. A synthetic method for polyhydroxyanthraquinones was found which involved the use of phthalides and permitted a precise knowledge of the stereochemistry in the resulting products. The method was applied to the synthesis of such natural dyes as meodin, morindone, anthrarufin, and rufiopin. Chaulmoogra oil had been used for centuries as a treatment for leprosy. The structures of chaulmoogric and hydnocarpic acids obtained from this oil were clarified in detail and their dihydro derivatives were synthesized. Adams recognized the desirability of and succeeded in determining the structure of gossypol for the cottonseed industry. The Narcotics Bureau of Washington enlisted Adams to investigate marijuana. Adams group isolated and identified the cannabidiol and showed its relationship to cannabinol and to the physiologically active tetrahydrocannabinols. Synthesis of cannabinol and a series of analogs of tetrahydrocannabinol followed. His studies on the alkaloids of Senecio and Crotalaria opened up the fields of pyrrolizidine chemistry and large ring diester chemistry in general.
The stereochemistry of molecules in which rotation about a single bond is restricted was investigated by Professor Adams over a period of thirty years and constitutes one of the most extensive systematic studies of steric strain in organic molecules. Related to these studies were syntheses and reactions carried out on quinone imides, highly reactive substances related to the benzoquinones. Further contributions to stereochemistry lay in the introduction of l-menthoxyacetyl chloride and amine bisulfites as resolving agents, the use of oxalyl chloride as a synthetic reagent, and the Adams' simplification of Gattermann aldehyde synthesis.
The discovery of the platinum oxide catalyst deserves mention. In the first published account by V. Voorhees and R. Adams [J. Amer. Chem. Soc., 44, 1397 (1922)] the description of the catalyst preparation was the fusion of chloroplatinic acid with sodium nitrate. This is still one of the most active and readily prepared platinum catalysts for hydrogenation reactions. Its discovery and the development of a simple low-pressure catalytic hydrogenation apparatus have had a profound effect in the synthesis and structure knowledge in organic chemistry and biochemistry. No citation index will ever disclose how many problems on a research and on a technical scale have been solved by the use of the Adams' catalyst!
Scientific discoveries were not the only contributions of Roger Adams. He a teacher held in the highest regard as he "always took time for his students," "followed his student's careers", and "was always ready to assist his students when they came to him with personal or professional problems." In the 1920's and 1930's, Roger Adams, along with C. S. Marvel and E. H. Volwiler, was instrumental in an enterprise called Organic Chemical Manufactures. This business provided summer employment for his students and provided starting materials for research. He played a leading role in helping German industry rebuild after World War II.
Roger Adams was one of the founders of several new programs to benefit organic chemists. In 1921, the Organic Synthesis series was initiated, and in 1942, the Organic Reactions series followed. Adams served as Editor-in-Chief of Organic Reactions for 19 years. He only assumed that role when it was agreed that there be no royalties paid to authors for their contributions. All of the royalties were accrued by John Wiley and Sons and were the basis of the Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry, consisting of a gold medal and a cash prize, which is awarded biennially "to recognize and encourage outstanding contributions to research in organic chemistry." Under sponsorship of the American Chemical Society and participation of the Division of Chemistry, the first award was made in 1959.
He was the recipient of numerous awards for science, philanthropy, national service, and the arts. 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.
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- Tarbell, D. S.; Tarbell, A. T. Roger Adams Scientist and Statesman; American Chemical Society: 1981.
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- American Chemists and Chemical Engineers; Miles, W. D., Ed.; American Chemical Society: 1976; p4-5.