Adams, Roger (1889-1971) | University of Illinois Archives

Name: Adams, Roger (1889-1971)

Historical Note:

Roger Adams (1889-1971) was assistant professor (1916-19), professor (1916-57), head of the Department of Chemistry (1926-54), and professor emeritus (1957-71) at the University of Illinois (UI). He was a renowned organic chemist, public servant, and educator known for his many scientific discoveries, including the platinum oxide catalyst or the Adams catalyst.

Adams was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 2, 1889, to parents Lydia Curtis and Austin Winslow Adams. He attended Harvard University, earning a BA (1909), MA (1910), and a PhD (1912) in organic chemistry. He undertook postdoctorate research in Germany with Emil Fischer and Otto Diels at the University of Berlin and Richard Willstätter at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Dahlem (1912/13). When Adams returned to the US, he worked as a research assistant to Charles L. Jackson and an instructor at Harvard University. In 1916, he accepted an assistant professorship at UI and remained there for the rest of his career. While at UI, he supervised the research of more than 200 PhD students in addition to postdoctoral research associates and fellows. He also personally conducted and oversaw a vast array of research achievements, including the discovery of countless methods of organic synthesis and natural products such as synthesizing chloralkyl esters from aldehydes and acid chlorides and discovering the structures of disalicylaldehyde and dehydro-acetic acid.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Adams led the American Chemical Manufactures enterprise on the UI campus. He also undertook government work on more than one occasion, conducting research on poisonous gases for the US Army (1917-18); leading an US effort to manufacture synthetic rubber during WWII; and serving as scientific advisor in Germany (1945-46) and Japan (1947-48) in the aftermath of WWII. For the US Narcotics Bureau, he isolated and identified cannabidiol from Cannabis sativa, revealing its connection to tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabinol.

Adams was the recipient of the William H. Nichols Medal (1927), Priestley Medal (1946), National Medal of Science (1964), and American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal (1964), among others. The American Chemical Society (ACS) established the Roger Adams Award in 1959 to honor distinguished contributions to organic chemistry. He was also a Laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois and was awarded the Order of Lincoln by the governor of Illinois (1967). Adams received a number of honorary doctorates, including from Northwestern, Harvard, and Yale. In 1972, the Roger Adams Laboratory on the UI campus was named in his honor.


"Roger Adams (1889-1971)," Department of Chemistry (UIUC), accessed May 6, 2020,

Walter Murphy, "Roger Adams: President of the AAAS for 1950," The Scientific Monthly, LXX, no. 1 (January 1950): 30-33.

D. Stanley Tarbell and Ann Tracy Tarbell, "Roger Adams, 1889â??1971," Biographical Memoir (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1982), accessed May 6, 2020,

Wikipedia, s.v. "Roger Adams," accessed May 6, 2020,

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