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Harry Gray Oral History Interview with Shirley K. Cohen and Heidi Aspaturian, 2000-09-22 - 2016-05-05


Scope and Contents

Two interviews in seven and six sessions respectively, with Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry. The first series of interviews, conducted in 2000-01 with Shirley Cohen, deals with Gray’s life and career up to that time. The second series, conducted in 2016 with Heidi Aspaturian, covers the period 2001–2016, expands on a number of topics discussed in the first interview series, and adds to the account of Gray’s earlier decades. Discussion topics common to the two interviews are cross-referenced in both texts. 2000–01 INTERVIEW Gray opens this interview series with a description of his family roots and formative years in Kentucky’s tobacco-farming country, including his youthful career with the local newspaper and early interest in chemistry. He then provides an account of his undergraduate studies at Western Kentucky State College (BS 1957), graduate work with F. Basolo and R. Pearson at Northwestern University (PhD 1960), and postdoctoral work with C. Ballhausen at the University of Copenhagen, where he pioneered the development of ligand field theory. As a professor at Columbia University, he continued work at the frontiers of inorganic chemistry, published several books and, through an affiliation with Rockefeller University, was drawn to interdisciplinary research, which led him to accept a faculty position at Caltech in 1966. He talks about his approach to teaching and his research in inorganic chemistry and electron transfer at Caltech, his interactions with numerous Caltech personalities, including A. Beckman, G. Hammond, A. Kuppermann, J. Labinger, R. Marcus, L. Pauling, and J. Roberts, his efforts to revamp the undergraduate curriculum, and his tenure as chair of the chemistry and chemical engineering division. He discusses the vision for and construction of the Beckman Institute, its multidisciplinary programs, and his tenure as the facility’s founding director (1986–2001). The interview concludes with Gray’s assessment of chemistry’s key advances over the previous thirty years and predictions for the future. 2016 INTERVIEW In this follow-up to his 2000–01 interview, Gray elaborates on his family history and youthful interests, including his early fascination with the chemistry of color, his first patent at age eighteen, and his rapid rise through the ranks of his hometown newspaper in Bowling Green, Kentucky, capped by a front-page interview with a very young Elvis Presley. He describes his experiences growing up in the segregated South and his father’s controversial stance in support of school integration in the 1950s. He talks at length about his years as chairman of Caltech’s chemistry and chemical engineering division (CChE), particularly his experiences recruiting future Nobel laureates R. Grubbs, R. Marcus, and A. Zewail onto the faculty and his interactions with Caltech administrators, trustees, and donors. There is extensive discussion of his somewhat unorthodox but highly successful approach to teaching and mentoring undergraduates, as well as recollections of his involvement with the Caltech theater arts program and student pranks. He discusses his solar and alternative energy research and his work over the last decade with “Gray’s Solar Army,” a worldwide network of students engaged in testing potential catalysts for solar cells. He shares his perspectives on chemistry as “the 21st century science,” details his current research into electron transfer and redox reactions, and comments on his relationship with a succession of Caltech administrators. A look back at his professional awards, including a 1986 White House visit to receive the National Medal of Science, and his thoughts on how chemistry and Caltech have evolved in the last fifty years round out this interview. This interview is partially restricted. Per agreement between Professor Gray and the Caltech Archives, dated April 2017, portions of the manuscript are closed for ten years. Closed portions are clearly marked in the transcript.


  • 2000-09-22 - 2016-05-05


Conditions Governing Access

Most edited transcripts are available to researchers on the web at Audio recordings and additional transcripts are available in the reading room at the Caltech Archives. When additional restrictions apply to specific interviews, they are noted in the finding aid.


1 books

Language of Materials

From the Collection: English

  • Chemistry Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings

Repository Details

Part of the California Institute of Technology Archives and Special Collections Repository

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