With the 20th anniversary of Earth Day just recently passed, the time was right to recognize a scientist for his discovery of an "environmentally friendly" product. John E. Franz, distinguished science fellow at the Monsanto Agricultural Products Co. in St. Louis, has recently received the 1990 Perkin Medal, given by the American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry.
Established in 1906, the medal is named in honor of Sir William Henry Perkin, who developed the first synthetic dye in 1856. Given annually, the Perkin Medal honors contributions to research and development of applied chemistry.
Franz, 60, was cited by the society for his discovery of glyphosate, an herbicide that is effective against weeds but nontoxic to animals. "It's quite an honor," says Franz. "It's probably one of the best recognitions of a person's research."
The chemist began his studies of glyphosate in 1969, working with two phosphonic acid compounds. He hypothesized that these two weakly herbicidal compounds weren't really acting as herbicides, as previously believed, but rather as proherbicides that were metabolized to active compounds in the plants. He began synthesizing the compounds until he discovered glyphosate, which has become an active ingredient in Roundup, one of the world's most successful and widely sold herbicides. "I think it's benefited mankind," Franz says of his discovery of glyphosate. "It has increased fiber and food throughout the world by increasing yields and eliminating weeds." Franz detailed his studies of glyphosate in The Herbicide Glyphosate (London: Butter-worth, 1985, pages 3-17). Glyphosate is particularly effective against perennial weeds, since most of the herbicides at the time had worked mostly on annual weeds.
Currently, Franz is continuing his research in organic chemistry. "We're working on ways to improve the discovery of environmentally friendly products," he says - meaning those that would not "insult the environment, be toxic to animals, pollute groundwater, [or] be volatile, but would degrade readily," among other characteristics.
Franz has spent his entire professional career at Monsanto, beginning in the organic chemicals division in 1955. His work has included process research, new polymer synthesis, and the development of plasticizers and polymer flame retardants. More recently, he has focused on organic chemistry along with plant physiology and biochemistry.
Franz's other honors include Monsanto's J.F. Queeny Award and the National Medal of Technology. He earned his B.S. at the University of Illinois in 1951 and his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Minnesota in 1955.