Icons of Chromatography: Harold McNair

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E-Separation Solutions

E-Separation Solutions-11-11-2009, Volume 0, Issue 0

The 2009 LCGC Lifetime Achievement Award winner Harold McNair is interviewed by the 2009 LCGC Emerging Leader Award winner Kevin Schug.

The Icons of Chromatography series continues with Kevin Schugfrom the University of Texas at Arlington talking to Harold McNairfrom Virginia Tech 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 groupof mentors. In 1957, I performed my first GC injections.I was a graduate student at Purdue University and hadjust finished a Masters in electrochemistry. I wanted anexciting new topic for my PhD work. I took a summer job atAmoco’s Research Labs in Whiting, Indiana, USA. My jobwas to screen around 80 new liquid phases for selectivityto separate butane-1 and iso-butylene as well as someC18 unsaturated methyl esters. During the summer job,Nobel Laureate A.J.P. Martin came to the labs to install hisnew gas density balance detector.

I was assigned as his “gofor” for the day. It was amemorable experience; he really turned me on to GC withhis knowledge and enthusiasm and tips on making tea (heat the cup!). The next summer, I worked with SteveDal Nogare from DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware, USAand was indoctrinated in temperature-programmed GC.Steve was a great mentor and very enthusiastic aboutGC. Finally, my Fulbright fellowship with Professor A.I.M.Keulemans in 1959, convinced me I would work on GC foras long as I could. So many of the pioneers in GC cameto 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 inthe field?

My greatest achievement is collaborating with my students— undergraduates, graduates, post-doctoral fellows —and visiting professors (easily over 200 total). This groupof 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 singleindividual as there were too many major breakthroughsfrom a wide range of people. Highlights would definitelyinclude reporting the first capillary GC–MS results in1961; introducing temperature programmed LC in 1981;using mobile phase modifiers to stabilize retention timeson silica gel; developing the first directly coupled LC/GCexperiment using two independent computers in 1981;identifying the role of pH in CZE to add to the electrostaticmobility of highly hydrated protons: and also early work onanalysing steroids in urine by GC-TOF-MS. The latter studywas one of the earliest demonstrations of the use of TOF-MScoupled to GC for determining traces of steroids in urine andthis work was honoured with an “outstanding Ph.D. thesisaward” from Virginia Tech.

A research project in 1976, which correlated pKb’sof weak aromatic amines with retention time on acidicsilica gel, was recognized by NASA as the second mostcited scientific publication for that year. The Viking-MarsLanding was Number One! Our work was one of the firstpublications on the LC analysis of aromatic diamines. Notonly did this class of compounds hold high interest forNASA in relation to polymer research, but they also heldhigh biological significance; thus, many researchers in thebiomedical and pharmaceutical communities also paidclose attention to this work.

But equally as important as the quality of the scientificpublications was the work ethic, the group effort andstrong friendships established while at Virginia Tech. Someof the best memories were the long van rides to Pittcon each year. I was always so proud when one of my studentsgave a great lecture at some conference. I am still incontact with almost all of my former students.

Did you consider entering academia after yourpost-doctoral fellowship?

Not really, I was focused on industry. I had spent fivesummers working in industry at Phillips Petroleum Co.,Amoco Central Research, American Cyananid, DuPontand Esso Analytical R&D. I knew industry had betterequipment, strong support staff and services, realsignificant problems and, of course, much better pay. Infact, when I did come to Virginia Tech in 1968, my planwas to stay only a few years then go back into internationalmarketing, hopefully in Europe, in the scientific instrumentbusiness. But after three years, I fell in love with teachingstudents, choosing my own research projects, being able to play tennis almost any time, any day and Blacksburgwas a great place to raise a family.

Incidentally, I did actually get a tennis and a scholasticscholarship forthe University ofArizona and playedthere for two yearsuntil the numberof Physics andChemistry labsevery week left notime for tennis. I stillenjoy hitting and tryto play two or threetimes a week.

You told methat two ofyour favouriteactivities:teaching shortcourses andwriting bookscame from your industrial experience. Why is this?

After one year with Esso R&D in 1961, I returned to Europeto set up operations for F&M Scientific (later H.P., Avondale,Pennsylvania, USA). Even though Europe had introducedand pioneered the art of GC, there were few progressiveinstrument manufacturers. F+M Scientific and later Aerograph(Varian) realized the importance of TPGC; both becamemajor leaders in the field based on the quality of theirinstrumentation. I lived in Amsterdam 1962–64 and Europeancustomers were begging for seminars, hands-on trainingcourses, booklets; anything to help them learn about GC.Part of my job was then — and still is — telling everyonehow great GC really is. My book Basic GC originated from alecture at the University of Athens, Greece in 1963. After onelecture, 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 iswritten in straight-forward English for Europeans with Englishas their second language. It was a simple book, easy-to-readand was eventuallytranslated into eightdifferent languageswith over 130 000copies sold.


After joining Varianin 1965, I set up aone-person unit,GC training, whichoffered “hands-on”GC training, acrossthe US initially, butlater in Europe,Canada, Australiaand Mexico. Thiswas a huge success.The unit not onlyshowed a small profiteach year, but also,as I recall, about20% of all attendees bought or had already bought a VarianGC. It was a great marketing success.

Thus logically, I carried the model for short coursesand GC books with me to Blacksburg. The short courseshelped train my students, generate money in my earlieracademic career, recruit new graduate students andseveral companies left their best chromatographic systemsin my labs.

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

LC–MS applied to biological compounds. So many peoplewho are not trained as chemists or chromatographersare buying and using LC–MS regularly to study importantproblems that involve the analysis of complex mixtures ofbiomolecules.

Harold M. McNair is known by hisfriends, students and colleaguesas one of the early pioneers of gaschromatography. His interests inseparation science led him througha number of industrial positionsbefore landing at Virginia Tech inBlacksburg, VA, USA in 1968. Sincethat time, McNair has made manysignificant research contributionsand his initiation and instruction of avariety of short courses in the areasof gas chromatography (GC), gaschromatography–mass spectrometry(GC–MS), high performance liquidchromatography (HPLC) and samplepreparation.

He participated in the first ACS shortcourse ever given (on GC) in 1967.He is credited with the developmentof six different ACS short courses,and he has taught close to 200sessions in the past 30 years. Thesecourses are not only an enjoyableand welcoming environment forindustrial, government and academicscientists across the world to learn and hone their separation scienceskills, but also a unique environmentfor undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoralstudents in the McNair groupto experience the exceptional value ofthese efforts.

McNair was born in Miami,Arizona, USA and received BSdegrees in chemistry and physics(magna cum laude) from theUniversity of Arizona in 1955. Hethen obtained his MS and PhDdegrees from Purdue University and,shortly thereafter, embarked on aFulbright Post-Doctoral Fellowship atthe Eindhoven Technical University,in The Netherlands. His initial workin GC, which began at PurdueUniversity, blossomed from this pointforward and since the latter part ofthe 20th century, McNair has beenconsidered as one of the foremostauthorities on the theory andapplication of virtually all mainstreamseparation techniques.

McNair has received manyawards for his work, including the K.P. Dimick Award(1991), the Tswett Medal (1993), theDal Nogare Award (2001), the HorvathMedal (2003) and most recently,the LCGC Lifetime Achievementin Chromatography Award (2009).McNair was granted ProfessorEmeritus status in 2002, however he isstill actively engaged (and funded) inhis research efforts that focus primarilyon homeland security.

Kevin A. Schug receivedhis PhD in Chemistryfrom Virginia Tech underMcNair in 2002, performedpost-doctoral researchwith Professor WolfgangLindner at the Universityof Vienna (2003–2005)and is currently assistantprofessor in theDepartment of Chemistryand Biochemistry at theUniversity of Texas atArlington.

Research in the Schug labspans the fundamentalsand applications ofliquid-phase separations,in conjunction withelectrospray ionizationmass spectrometry(ESI-MS). Additionally,ESI-MS is studied as ameans for preserving andanalysing noncovalentcomplex formation betweensmall molecules, whileMALDI-MS is used for fingerprinting complexmixtures.

Most recently, Schughas been the recipient ofthe 2009 LCGC EmergingLeader in ChromatographyAward and a NSF CAREERaward. Schug credits hisresearch and teachingprinciples to his previousmentors: Harold McNairand Wolfgang Lindner.He currently manages agroup of 15 graduate and undergraduate students atU.T. Arlington.