Icons of Chromatography: Harold McNair


LCGC Europe

LCGC EuropeLCGC Europe-11-01-2009
Volume 22
Issue 10
Pages: 500–504

Kevin Schug talks to Harold McNair about his illustrious career in chromatography

Who introduced you to GC?

Dr A.J.P. Martin, Dr Steve Dal Nogare and Prof. A.I.M. Keulemans. You could not have wished for a better group of mentors. In 1957, I performed my first GC injections. I was a graduate student at Purdue University and had just finished a Masters in electrochemistry. I wanted an exciting new topic for my PhD work. I took a summer job at Amoco's Research Labs in Whiting, Indiana, USA. My job was to screen around 80 new liquid phases for selectivity to separate butane-1 and iso-butylene as well as some C18 unsaturated methyl esters. During the summer job, Nobel Laureate A.J.P. Martin came to the labs to install his new gas density balance detector.

I was assigned as his "gofor" for the day. It was a memorable experience; he really turned me on to GC with his knowledge and enthusiasm and tips on making tea (heat the cup!). The next summer, I worked with Steve Dal Nogare from DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware, USA and was indoctrinated in temperature-programmed GC. Steve was a great mentor and very enthusiastic about GC. Finally, my Fulbright fellowship with Professor A.I.M. Keulemans in 1959, convinced me I would work on GC for as long as I could. So many of the pioneers in GC came to his lab and I was fortunate to work with many of them — and this fired my enthusiasm for GC.

What do you see as your greatest achievement in the field?

My greatest achievement is collaborating with my students — undergraduates, graduates, post-doctoral fellows — and visiting professors (easily over 200 total). This group of intelligent, humorous, hard-working people made my research and teaching both interesting and challenging — most of the time! It would be unfair to mention any single individual as there were too many major breakthroughs from a wide range of people. Highlights would definitely include reporting the first capillary GC–MS results in 1961; introducing temperature programmed LC in 1981; using mobile phase modifiers to stabilize retention times on silica gel; developing the first directly coupled LC/GC experiment using two independent computers in 1981; identifying the role of pH in CZE to add to the electrostatic mobility of highly hydrated protons: and also early work on analysing steroids in urine by GC-TOF-MS. The latter study was one of the earliest demonstrations of the use of TOF-MS coupled to GC for determining traces of steroids in urine and this work was honoured with an "outstanding Ph.D. thesis award" from Virginia Tech.

A research project in 1976, which correlated pKb's of weak aromatic amines with retention time on acidic silica gel, was recognized by NASA as the second most cited scientific publication for that year. The Viking-Mars Landing was Number One! Our work was one of the first publications on the LC analysis of aromatic diamines. Not only did this class of compounds hold high interest for NASA in relation to polymer research, but they also held high biological significance; thus, many researchers in the biomedical and pharmaceutical communities also paid close attention to this work.

But equally as important as the quality of the scientific publications was the work ethic, the group effort and strong friendships established while at Virginia Tech. Some of the best memories were the long van rides to Pittcon each year. I was always so proud when one of my students gave a great lecture at some conference. I am still in contact with almost all of my former students.

Did you consider entering academia after your post-doctoral fellowship?

Not really, I was focused on industry. I had spent five summers working in industry at Phillips Petroleum Co., Amoco Central Research, American Cyananid, DuPont and Esso Analytical R&D. I knew industry had better equipment, strong support staff and services, real significant problems and, of course, much better pay. In fact, when I did come to Virginia Tech in 1968, my plan was to stay only a few years then go back into international marketing, hopefully in Europe, in the scientific instrument business. But after three years, I fell in love with teaching students, choosing my own research projects, being able to play tennis almost any time, any day and Blacksburg was a great place to raise a family.

Red Lion Inn, Blacksburg VA: McNair and McNair students versus HPLC short course students in a game of volleyball.

Incidentally, I did actually get a tennis and a scholastic scholarship for the University of Arizona and played there for two years until the number of Physics and Chemistry labs every week left no time for tennis. I still enjoy hitting and try to play two or three times a week.

You told me that two of your favourite activities: teaching short courses and writing books came from your industrial experience. Why is this?

After one year with Esso R&D in 1961, I returned to Europe to set up operations for F&M Scientific (later H.P., Avondale, Pennsylvania, USA). Even though Europe had introduced and pioneered the art of GC, there were few progressive instrument manufacturers. F+M Scientific and later Aerograph (Varian) realized the importance of TPGC; both became major leaders in the field based on the quality of their instrumentation. I lived in Amsterdam 1962–64 and European customers were begging for seminars, hands-on training courses, booklets; anything to help them learn about GC. Part of my job was then — and still is — telling everyone how great GC really is. My book Basic GC originated from a lecture at the University of Athens, Greece in 1963. After one lecture, the faculty begged me to come back the next day. After four lectures in four days, they begged me to write up the lectures, which became the first draft of Basic GC. It is written in straight-forward English for Europeans with English as their second language. It was a simple book, easy-to-read and was eventually translated into eight different languages with over 130000 copies sold.

After joining Varian in 1965, I set up a one-person unit, GC training, which offered "hands-on" GC training, across the US initially, but later in Europe, Canada, Australia and Mexico. This was a huge success. The unit not only showed a small profit each year, but also, as I recall, about 20% of all attendees bought or had already bought a Varian GC. It was a great marketing success.

Thus logically, I carried the model for short courses and GC books with me to Blacksburg. The short courses helped train my students, generate money in my earlier academic career, recruit new graduate students and several companies left their best chromatographic systems in my labs.

What do you see as the most exciting development in separation science at the moment/the future?

LC–MS applied to biological compounds. So many people who are not trained as chemists or chromatographers are buying and using LC–MS regularly to study important problems that involve the analysis of complex mixtures of biomolecules.

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