Louis Fieser bigraphy, stories - Chemists

Louis Fieser : biography

April 7, 1899 - July 25, 1977

Louis Frederick Fieser (April 7, 1899 – July 25, 1977) was an organic chemist, professor, and in 1968, professor emeritus at Harvard University. He was renowned as the inventor, in 1943, of a militarily effective form of napalm. His award-winning research included work on blood-clotting agents including the first synthesis of vitamin K, synthesis and screening of quinones as antimalarial drugs, work with steroids leading to the synthesis of cortisone, and study of the nature of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.


Fieser was born in Columbus, Ohio, obtained his BA in chemistry in 1920 from Williams College, and his PhD under James Bryant Conant at Harvard in 1924. His graduate research concerned the measurement of oxidation potentials in quinone oxidation.Louis Fieser: An Organic Chemist in Peace and War Dieter Lenoir and Thomas T. Tidwell European Journal of Organic Chemistry 2008 note: nice anecdote in supplementary info in 1924 -1925 Fieser worked at the University of Oxford with W.H. Perkin Jr. and with Julius von Braun at the Frankfurt University as a postdoc. Between 1925 and 1930 he worked at Bryn Mawr College where he met his future wife. He then moved to Harvard University.

With his research assistant and wife Mary Peters Fieser (MA, 1936, Radcliffe) he coauthored eight books and the first seven volumes of the classic series Reagents for Organic Synthesis known popularly among chemists as "Fieser and Fieser". He was also an editor and contributor for Organic syntheses.

Fieser had two chemical reagents named for him. Fieser's reagent is a mixture of chromium trioxide in acetic acid. Fieser's solution is an aqueous solution of potassium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite, and sodium anthraquinone b-sulfonate used for the removal of oxygen from a gas stream. Woodward's rules for calculating UV absorption maxima are also known as the Woodward-Fieser rules.

In 1939 Fieser was involved in a competitive race for the structure elucidation of Vitamin K and he was able to report its synthesis in the end of that year.Synthesis of Vitamin K1 Louis F. Fieser J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1939, 61 (12), pp 3467–3475

According to a recent in memoriam  Fieser was a contender for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1941 and 1942 (when no prizes were actually awarded) but in 1943 the award for the discovery of vitamin K was given to another worker in this field. 

During World War II Fieser was partly responsible for a military experiment that went disastrously awry. Project X-ray was a scheme to drop a great number of bats with small incendiary charges with a timed fuse attached over Japan to start widespread fires. After the bats nested in housing and factories, the timed fuses would ignite the napalm and start the fires. During a test run, a number of the bats escaped and ignited Carlsbad Airfield's hangars, barracks, and a general's car. "The accidental incineration of Carlsbad Auxiliary Army Airfield by incendiary bats was both a high and a low for Project X-Ray."Couffer, p 233. Fieser omitted the account of the fires from his own account of the bat tests.Fieser, Scientific Method

Dow Chemical began producing his formula for Napalm during World War II. The use of Napalm during the Vietnam War stirred controversy. Fieser, however, was unapologetic for its creation. He stated, "I have no right to judge the morality of Napalm just because I invented it."Time magazine, January 5, 1968

In 1962 he served on the U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory Committee that in 1964 issued a report on the relationship between smoking and health. Fieser was a chain smoker and only after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1965 and recovered he quit the habit and started to actively promote the committee's conclusions.

Fieser was the graduate advisor of 1987 Nobel laureate Donald J. Cram.


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