The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2003
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, a bill opening one half million square miles of territory in the western
United States for settlement. The Homestead Act offered new arrivals from other countries the opportunity to stake and
develop farms of 160 acres by simply working the land for five years. Although they were only in their teens or early twenties,
my great grandparents individually left their villages in Norway and Sweden between 1875 and 1885 and migrated to western
Minnesota and South Dakota. Similar to the protagonists in the epics of Ole Rolvaag and Vilhelm Moberg, they worked the
rich farmland, married, raised families, and achieved prosperity unattainable at that time in Scandinavia.
Things changed for my parents' generation. My father, Courtland Agre, and his two sisters grew up in Wallace, a hamlet in
eastern South Dakota where his parents ran the general store. Wallace was also the hometown of Hubert Humphrey, and
while my aunt Pearl remembers baby-sitting young Hubert, my father, an ardent Republican, claimed that they never met. To
accommodate their educational needs, my grandparents moved the family to a larger town and ultimately to Minneapolis
where Dad earned his B.S. and Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota. He contributed to the U.S. effort in World
War II by working as an experimental polymer chemist for the 3M company. My mother, Ellen Swedberg, was the sixth of
eight children. Her upbringing was more severe. She was only five years old when her mother died; later her father lost their
farm in Twin Brooks, South Dakota during the Depression. At age 18, Mother moved to St. Paul in order to support herself.
Despite eleven years difference in age, Dad and Mom met at a Lutheran church social, fell in love, and married. I was never
certain how much their families approved, since even small differences in geographical origins are taken very seriously by
Scandinavians. The Agres were Norwegian (Osterdalen and Trondelag), while the Swedbergs had mixed origins - Swedish
(Skåne) and Norwegian (Telemark).
Following WWII, my parents moved to Northfield, a town 40 miles south of Minneapolis where Dad was recruited to the
chemistry department at St. Olaf College. Dad was energetic and, with the help of his St. Olaf students during the summers,
he built our house across the street from the college athletic fields and meadows. We could look up at the college from our
living room. As was the tradition, Mom had babies and took care of the family. Preceded two years by my sister Annetta, I was