Louis Fieser


Louis Frederick Fieser (April 7, 1899 – July 25, 1977) was an American organic chemist, professor, and in 1968, professor emeritus at Harvard University. He is known for inventing military effective napalm whilst he worked at Harvard in 1942.[1] His award-winning research included work on blood-clotting agents including the first synthesis of vitamin K, synthesis and screening of quinones as antimalarial drugs, work with steroids leading to the synthesis of cortisone, and study of the nature of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Louis Frederick Fieser
Louis Fieser.jpg
Born(1899-04-07)April 7, 1899
DiedJuly 25, 1977(1977-07-25) (aged 78)
Alma materWilliams College
Frankfurt University
Harvard University
Known forSynthesis of vitamin K
Woodward–Fieser rules
AwardsGeorge C. Pimentel (1967)
William H. Nichols Medal (1963)
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Oxford
Harvard University
ThesisReduction potentials of quinones. / A new absorbent for oxygen in gas analysis (1924)
Doctoral advisorJames Bryant Conant
Doctoral studentsMorley Morgana
Donald J. Cram
William Summer Johnson
Alfred Bader
Other notable studentsDonald J. Cram


Fieser was born in Columbus, Ohio, obtained his BA in chemistry in 1920 from Williams College, and his PhD under James Bryant Conant at Harvard in 1924. His graduate research concerned the measurement of oxidation potentials in quinone oxidation.[2] in 1924-1925 Fieser worked at the University of Oxford with W.H. Perkin Jr. and with Julius von Braun at the Frankfurt University as a postdoc. Between 1925 and 1930 he worked at Bryn Mawr College where he met his future wife. He then moved to Harvard University.

With his research assistant and wife Mary Peters Fieser (MA, 1936, Radcliffe) he coauthored eight books and the first seven volumes of the classic series Reagents for Organic Synthesis known popularly among chemists as "Fieser and Fieser". He was also an editor and contributor for Organic Syntheses.

At Harvard University, Fieser was a well-loved faculty member widely known for using inventive methods to educate his students, such as demonstrating "How NOT to Perform a Recrystallization" (in which he allowed a flask of charcoal to overflow and create a mess of his desk and himself). Fieser even produced a $28,000 educational film to supplement his organic chemistry lecture. As part of a scene in which Fieser demonstrated how cholesterol could be experimentally isolated from gall stones, the film featured a shot of a collection of oversized and rare gall stones from Boston-area hospitals.[3] Notably, Fieser's students appreciated his efforts so much that they sold orange "Louie" sweatshirts branded with Fieser's face in Harvard Square, one of which was worn by Fieser himself to lecture one day.[4]

Fieser had two chemical reagents named for him. Fieser's reagent is a mixture of chromium trioxide in acetic acid. Fieser's solution is an aqueous solution of potassium hydroxide, sodium hydrosulfite, and sodium anthraquinone β-sulfonate used for the removal of oxygen from a gas stream.[5] Woodward's rules for calculating UV absorption maxima are also known as the Woodward-Fieser rules. He was the first to propose the existence of iceane.[6][7]

In 1939 Fieser was involved in a competitive race for the structure elucidation of Vitamin K and he was able to report its synthesis in the end of that year.[8] According to a recent in memoriam [2] Fieser was a contender for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1941 and 1942 (when no prizes were actually awarded). However the 1943 award was shared between Henrik Dam for the discovery of vitamin K and Edward A. Doisy for the discovery of its chemical nature.[9]

During World War II Fieser was partly responsible for a military experiment that went disastrously awry. Project X-ray was a scheme to drop a great number of bats with small incendiary charges with a timed fuse attached over Japan to start widespread fires. After the bats nested in housing and factories, the timed fuses would ignite the incendiary charges (napalm) and start the fires. During a test run, a number of the bats escaped and ignited Carlsbad Airfield's hangars, barracks, and a general's car. "The accidental incineration of Carlsbad Auxiliary Army Airfield by incendiary bats was both a high and a low for Project X-Ray."[10] Fieser omitted the account of the fires from his own account of the bat tests.[11]

Dow Chemical began producing his formula for Napalm during World War II. The use of Napalm during the Vietnam War stirred controversy. Fieser, however, was unapologetic for its creation. He stated, "I have no right to judge the morality of Napalm just because I invented it."[12]

In 1962 he served on the U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory Committee that in 1964 issued a report on the relationship between smoking and health. Fieser was a chain smoker, and only after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1965 and recovered did he quit the habit and start to actively promote the committee's conclusions.

Fieser was the graduate advisor of 1987 Nobel laureate Donald J. Cram.


  1. ^ Nature volume 496, page 29 (04 April 2013) - "In 1942, in a secret lab at Harvard University in Massachusetts, chemist Louis Fieser and his team created napalm — an incendiary gel that sticks to skin and can burn down to the bone."
  2. ^ a b Lenoir, D.; Tidwell, T. T. (2009). "Louis Fieser: An Organic Chemist in Peace and War". Eur. J. Org. Chem. 2009 (4): 481–491. doi:10.1002/ejoc.200800969. Note: nice anecdote in supplementary info
  3. ^ Fieser, Louis F. (1964). The Scientific Method: A Personal Account of Unusual Projects in War and in Peace. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation. pp. 223–227.
  4. ^ Read "Biographical Memoirs: Volume 65" at NAP.edu.
  5. ^ Fieser, L. F. (1924). "A new absorbent for oxygen in gas analysis". J. Am. Chem. Soc. 46 (12): 2639–2647. doi:10.1021/ja01677a005.
  6. ^ Fieser, L. F. (1965). "Extensions in the use of plastic tetrahedral models". J. Chem. Educ. 42 (8): 408–412. doi:10.1021/ed042p408.
  7. ^ Hargittai, M.; Hargittai, I. (2013). "Polyhedral Molecular Geometries". In Senechal, M. (ed.). Shaping Space: Exploring Polyhedra in Nature, Art, and the Geometrical Imagination. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 153–170, 299. ISBN 9780387927145.
  8. ^ Fieser, L. F. (1939). "Synthesis of Vitamin K1". J. Am. Chem. Soc. 61 (12): 3467–3475. doi:10.1021/ja01267a072. PMID 17776660.
  9. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1943". Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2018-01-15.
  10. ^ Couffer, J. (1992). Bat Bomb: World War II's Other Secret Weapon. University of Texas Press. p. 233. ISBN 9780292707900.
  11. ^ Fieser, L. F. (1964). The Scientific Method: A Personal Account of Unusual Projects in War and in Peace. Reinhold Publishing Corporation. ISBN 9784420001168.
  12. ^ Time magazine, January 5, 1968


  • Gates, M., Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Science 1994, vol. 65, p. 161-175
  • "Steroids", Scientific American, January 1955, Vol.192, No.1, pp. 52–60
  • Fieser, L. F. (1964). The Scientific Method: A Personal Account of Unusual Projects in War and in Peace. Reinhold Publishing Corporation. ISBN 9784420001168.
  • Couffer, J. (1992). Bat Bomb: World War II's Other Secret Weapon. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292707900. editions:1fgqiyuFmfcC.

External linksEdit

  • The Man Who Invented Napalm at the Wayback Machine (archived March 12, 2005) Time magazine January 5, 1968 (Internet archive)
  • Brief bio and photo at Michigan State University, accessed February 9, 2006
  • Contributions of Organic Chemists to Biochemistry Journal of Biological Chemistry online, accessed February 9, 2006
  •[dead link], accessed May 6, 2011.