Louise Foley, PhD ’70 (V)

Headshot of Louise Foley
Louise Foley

Louise Foley, PhD ‘70, grew up in Old Forge, a small town in upstate New York. Her mother was an English major and a “closet” scientist, and her father an electrical engineer who spent time at MIT during World War II while he was working on radar for the US Navy in Washington, DC.

Louise had been interested in science since 8th grade and in high school became passionate about chemistry. Her high school did not offer advanced courses so she took alternative classes including mechanical drawing and typing, the former coming in handy during the early days of structure drawing. Without the burden of advanced course work, she found time to enjoy alpine ski racing, and from an early age, was fond of classical music.

After high school, Louise chose to go to the University of Vermont (UVM) where they offered a “Professional Chemistry Program.” There, she was chosen for a NSF Undergraduate Research award for the summer after her sophomore year. “This experience in the lab,” she says,  “was critical, as until then, I knew I liked organic chemistry but had no idea what I could do with a degree in it.”  She received the same NSF award for her junior and senior academic years and for the following summers. “I simply fell in love with doing organic research,” she says.

Her undergraduate research mentor at UVM, Prof. M. E. Kuehne, enquired as to her future plans, and on learning she wished to pursue a PhD in organic chemistry, suggested she read the papers of several professors she should consider working with, Prof. George Büchi at MIT being one. “I enjoyed reading Büchi’s papers because in addition to discussing his research, he added related information,” Louise says. Her second choice was Prof. Gilbert Stork at Columbia, “but,” she says,  “Stork’s papers were interesting but lacked the tidbits of knowledge that George Büchi provided.”

In 1965, after graduating from UVM, Louise arrived at MIT aspiring to be admitted into the PhD program and more expressly into Prof. Buchi’s group. However, Büchi had a reputation for not admitting women into his group so she knew it wouldn’t be easy.

Louise notes that at least until 1965, to be admitted to the PhD program in chemistry at MIT, one had to have taken and passed qualifying exams in the four areas of chemistry. UVM had no inorganic professors and Louise’s analytical chemistry professor had been a poor instructor and, as a result of not reviewing physical chemistry, Louise failed three of the four exams. When she met with Professor Herbert House at MIT, he told her that if he could have averaged her organic score over the other three exams, she would have passed them all with flying colors.

Prof. Büchi, however, told Louise that he had no room in his group for the fall semester but he offered her a place in his group in January with the condition that she pass all the qualifying exams as well as her courses.

“Following my mother’s death,” says Louise, “I found a letter from Prof. Arthur Cope, then department chair, to my parents saying how proud they should be as I had proved a number of professors wrong in their assessment of me by passing all the qualifying exams and my courses. This led me to think they, especially Prof. Büchi, had been betting against my success!”

Büchi and Cope suggested Louise retake the GRE. She did, and received an excellent score, resulting in a NIH Fellowship. “Thus I became the only woman PhD from MIT with George Büchi as mentor,” she says, adding, “George seemed to take pleasure in introducing me to others as his only female PhD or as his first and last female PhD!”

In the fall semester, prior to joining the Büchi group, Louise TA’d for Prof. C. Gardner Swain’s organic chemistry class. Her task was to correct the exams he gave using the key he supplied. In doing this, she noticed he had an incorrect mechanism. “He came down to the Reading Room where I was correcting the papers, visibly upset that I would question him,” Louise says. “When he looked at my mechanism, and the papers I had pulled out to support it, he agreed I was right. Needless to say, he never asked me to correct his exams again!”

Louise’s research topic in the Büchi Lab was a novel approach to quinidine, the quinuclidine portion of quinine. The next to last step in this synthesis was in essence to dehydrate an alcohol. Louise thought this should have been simple but instead of dehydrating, the alcohol underwent a transannular reaction followed by the addition of any available nucleophile. The dehydration problem was eventually solved with the assistance of another member of Büchi’s group, Terry Barrett, who suggested another method to form the desired olefin. Later Louise was able to find an alternative way that gave her the olefin in a higher yield.

In their later years, students often found themselves on their own, working through any problems that developed. George Büchi watched from a distance and would only step in  if the student was trying to find solutions without success. Thus, his students became very knowledgeable and self-sufficient, both important skills for the “real world.”

Once Louise had the precursor to the desired Cope Rearrangement in hand, she discovered that this rearrangement did not occur but a retro Diels-Alder reaction did. Interestingly, had she chosen a different route to the critical compound, the product of the retro Diels-Alder reaction would have been one of the starting materials.

The most challenging aspect of grad school, Louise found, especially in the first two years, was getting her research done while at the same time preparing seminars and, in the second year, preparing a proposal to defend. Despite the demands, she found graduate school enjoyable and stimulating. “It was wonderful to be around really bright people who were interested in the science I loved,” she says, “and the Büchi lab members enjoyed socializing together. We went on ski trips and hiked and Prof. Büchi would join us when he could.”
Besides Büchi, Louise held in high regard Profs. Arthur Cope, Herbert House, and George Whitesides, all of whom were in the department at the time. Although she never took a course with Cope, she had read his papers. Prof. House had just written the first edition of Modern Synthetic Reactions and Louise attended his wonderful course on that topic. She also enjoyed a course that Prof. Whitesides taught that introduced students to writing programs on computers to analyze NMR spectra. This was back in the days when programs were printed on slippery 3”x6” cards. Handling them was very difficult, she remembers, as if the stack was held too tight, it exploded into hundreds of flying cards in no particular order!  “Prof. Whitesides was a night owl, like me,” she remembers. “During the hot summer nights, I’d see him walking the hallways of the main building with less and less clothes on. The undershirt stage was the point I’d leave and go home, as who knew what might come off next!”

Louise received her PhD in February of 1970 and began looking for an academic position. At the time, there was a dearth of female faculty in universities. However, she was unable to get an interview, even using her MIT proposal, which she’d been told was excellent. She turned her attention to securing an industrial job but again found reluctance on the part of employers to hire female PhDs. Finally, she was granted three interviews. The first was with a major pharmaceutical company where she was met by a gentleman who stated: “Five years ago we hired a woman PhD and she has worked out well; we think it might be time to hire another one.” To which Louise replied, “If that is the only reason I am here, you can take me back to the airport.”

At the second pharmaceutical company, she was met by a fellow who said, “We have never interviewed a woman before so is there anything special we should do?”  To which Louise responded, “If I ask to use a rest room, please direct me to a Lady’s Room.”  The third interview was with Hoffmann-La Roche where she discovered two women PhDs were already employed in the chemistry department. That interview had commenced, as had the others, with the question: Do you have a boyfriend?  “In those days that question was allowed,” says Louise, adding, “if the answer was in the affirmative, you would not be considered for the position.”  She notes also that having a boyfriend at that time also meant you would not get a postdoc position. “Happily, how things have changed!” she remarks.

At Roche, Louise’s pharmaceutical research encompassed chemistry and biology. During her career, she worked with amino acids, carbohydrates, nucleotides, nucleosides, novel purines, new derivatives of Vitamin C, synthesis of novel retinoids and Vitamin A isomers, and synthesis of numerous heterocycles. “Working in just one area of organic chemistry,” she says, “would never have been as much fun.”

Working at Roche also had other advantages. As the first person to be allowed by Roche to hold a faculty appointment, Louise began teaching a basic organic course on Saturday mornings and three evenings a week at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY. The small class was comprised of older students who wanted to go to medical school but lacked organic chemistry. Finally, this gave Louise the opportunity to satisfy her desire to teach!

In 1981, after 10 years of pharmaceutical research, Louise’s interest in biology had reached a point where she wanted to learn more. So, taking a leave of absence from Roche, she returned to MIT as a Visiting Scientist to study cell biology and immunology, while still doing organic research. Changing gears and studying a totally new area was an exhilarating experience for Louise.

Back at MIT,  Louise was once again kept busy. Prof. K. Barry Sharpless was going on sabbatical and asked her to teach his section of the second semester of the organic course, the carbonyl section of the course. Louise agreed and while teaching it began to feel there had to be a better way to present the somewhat disjointed topic. A few years later she came up with “Carbonyl Chemistry Unified” (which she copyrighted).

Prof. Büchi, delighted to have Louise back at MIT, provided her with lab space and chemicals as long as she led his weekly group seminar (which he attended) and also taught his Natural Product course when he was out of town. She and George realized they both had an interest in the synthesis of the same marine natural product—dibromophakellin. Through a biomimetic synthesis that Louise suggested, it worked out beautifully.

When Louise returned to Roche in 1988 (after an intervening teaching post at UNH), it was to take up the chemistry part of a new oncology program. “It was a wonderful choice,” she says, “the biology of cancer at that time was rapidly developing and my cell biology background made keeping up with that, as well as with organic chemistry, a full time but fun job.”

Retired now, Louise still loves classical music, reading history—both world and US—and of course keeps up with the science journals.

“I played many tricks on Prof. Büchi,” Louise  says, reflecting again on her graduate student experience at MIT. “He had a great sense of humor and always found a way to get back at me or us.”   By “us” she is referring to Jimmy Powell or the aforementioned Hugh “Terry” Barrett whom she often enlisted as co-conspirators.

One of Prof. Büchi’s best “get backs” to the tricks was when it came time for her Thesis Defense. “It was scheduled for 2pm and about 1:45pm Prof. Büchi came to the lab and asked me if I was ready,” Louise recalls. “I responded that I only get dressed up once a year and this is it.”  On arriving at the assigned room, they found it empty so they sat and waited. After a while, Prof. Büchi got up saying he was going to find the others and departed. Louise sat alone for a while and then Prof. Glenn Berchtold came in and sat down for a while. Then he departed saying he was going to find the others. Prof. Daniel Kemp came in and went through the same routine. This went on for over a half an hour. Louise concluded they were all in the Men’s Room across the hall from the lecture room, having a good laugh and drawing straws to decide who should go sit with her next.

When Jimmy Powell, Terry Barrett and Louise were finishing up their degrees, Prof. Büchi treated the three to  lunch and told them he had never enjoyed having any graduate students in his group as much as he enjoyed having them. Tricks and all they had succeeded!

“George Büchi,” Louise says, “was an intimidating person, not because of anything he said or did, but because of his stature in the department and in the field of organic chemistry. Many group members worried they would do something wrong and be thrown out of the group. “A number of years after his death,” Louise says, “I woke up from a nightmare in which he had thrown me out of his group. I immediately called his wife, Anne, to complain. Her quick response of, it’s about time!,  has had me laughing ever since.”

Over the years, Louise became very close to Anne and George Büchi, joining them some weekends at their New Hampshire home and every few years skiing in Switzerland. They were wonderful friends and became almost a second set of parents. Louise still treasures her friendship with Anne.

Louise is a loyal supporter of the department. “MIT, the Chemistry Department, and George Büchi were very good to me,” she says, adding,  “they provided me access to a career that I loved.  I am happy to, in some way, repay that gift.”