Man of the Masses

Feb 01, 2013
By Kate Yu
Volume 2, Issue 26, pg 86–90

"MS: The Practical Art" Editor, Kate Yu, spoke to Fred McLafferty about his pioneering career in mass spectrometry (MS).

Kate Yu: What brought you into the field of mass spectrometry (MS)?

Bendix time-of-flight mass spectrometer at the Dow Chemical Company with Roland Gohlke (foreground) and Fred McLafferty. Published with permission of Fred McLafferty.
Fred McLafferty: A crazy coincidence! After a PhD at Cornell University, (Ithaca, New York, USA) and a postdoc at the University of Iowa, (Iowa, USA), I arrived at the Dow Chemical Co., (Midland, Michigan, USA), in 1950 for an interview in their organic chemistry research laboratory. However, Dow also interviewed me for their spectroscopy laboratory in the MS group of Vic Caldecourt and two instrument operators. Vic had made the MS analyses so popular within the company that Dow wanted a chemist for the increased sample load while he concentrated on maintaining and improving the cranky instrumentation, at which he was terrific. No one, not even me, understood why I took the job with absolutely no prior knowledge (1).

KY: You were in World War II and were awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge. What were the most remarkable experiences you remember during the war?

FM: I went on active duty in April 1943, just after finishing a BS in chemistry and mathematics at the University of Nebraska (Nebraska, USA). A month before the war ended in Europe, our 2nd Battalion, 253rd Infantry, captured a major remaining German ammunition depot in a fierce battle against an elite SS unit that promised Hitler "no retreat". The battalion members were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. During this action platoon sergeant John R. Crews of my rifle company was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for personally saving part of another company that was trapped. I was wounded earlier the same day.

KY: Why did you come back to the field of chemistry after the war?

Time-of-flight mass spectra (oscillograph display) typical of Dow’s early GC–MS capabilities. (a): Mass spectrum of methane (CH4), peaks at m/z = 12–17 (16 tallest). (b): Mass spectrum of acetone (C3H6O, MW 58), peaks at 13–59 (contains impurity peaks, for example, H2O). Published with permission of Fred McLafferty.
FM: I was offered a battlefield commission from sergeant to officer rank, so I had a "career choice", but I doubt that such a career would allow the "fun participation" that I am having at my present age.

KY: Looking back at your career, who was the most influential person for you?

FM: Professor Franklin A. Long, who was at the Cornell University Chemistry Department from 1937 to 1999, was a very special scientific role model and friend during my graduate work from 1947 to 1949, and after I joined the faculty in 1968. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Assistant Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and on the Science Advisory Committees for three US Presidents. But by far the most important person in my life for 65 years has been my wonderful wife: Elizabeth "Tibby" Curley McLafferty.

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