Field of Science

Is the age of traditional organic synthesis over?

The Skeptical Chymist pointed me to a list of top 10 chemists from 2000-2010 produced by ISI /Thomson Reuters. I am copying the list from the Chymist's post:

"The data given is all from ISI/Web of Science: papers published, citations and 'impact' (citations per paper). I'll give you the top ten here:
Charles M. LIEBER; Harvard University (74 papers, 17,776 citations, 240.22 c/p)
Omar M. YAGHI; University of California Los Angeles (90, 19,870, 220.78)
Michael O’KEEFFE; Arizona State University (73, 12,910, 176.85)
K. Barry SHARPLESS; Scripps Research Institute (60, 9,754, 162.57)
A. Paul ALIVISATOS; University of California Berkeley (93, 14,589, 156.87)
Richard E. SMALLEY†; Formerly Rice University (60, 9,217, 153.62)
Hongjie DAI; Stanford University (88, 12,768, 145.09)
Xiaogang PENG; University of Arkansas (59, 8,548, 144.88)
Valery V. FOKIN; Scripps Research Institute (54, 6,853, 126.91)
Peidong YANG; University of California Berkeley (95, 11,167, 117.55)"

The most striking thing about this list for me is the lack of hard-core organic chemists in there. There are two bona fide synthetic chemists (Sharpless and Fokin) and no total synthesis people. Almost any such list from the 50s through the 90s would have been dominated by organic chemists engaged in methodology and total synthesis. Of course, as an enabling discipline synthesis is still key for all the research carried out by these heavy hitters. Organic synthesis will still be ubiquitously embedded in key chemical innovations. Organic chemists will still make important contributions and their syntheses will continue to be works of art imbued with elegance and economy. But organic chemistry as seen and practiced for forty exciting years by the old guard seems to be distinctly on the wane. I can almost sense a sigh and the wistful note of nostalgia.

Instead, what obviously dominates the list is nanotechnology and materials science. The materials range from pure inorganic materials to organic-inorganic hybrids to biomaterials. Materials science has clearly reigned during the past decade and will probably dominate the chemical landscape even more in the future. I suspect that other lists using different indices will come up with a similar smattering, perhaps with some more core biological chemists thrown in.

Perhaps the old guard of organic synthesis can seek respite in Tennyson's immortal lines:

"Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It's been a fantastic run, but it's time we moved on.


  1. " Of course, as an enabling discipline synthesis is still key for all the research carried out by these heavy hitters. Organic synthesis will still be ubiquitously embedded in key chemical innovations."

    Dead on. Perfectly put.

  2. The questions should be answerd by checking the nobel prize winners in organic chemistry with emphasis in synthesis. There are more than 25 winers; any other discipline will never achieve someting like this.

  3. That's certainly true if you are talking about the last 30-40 years. But how many of us foresee a Nobel Prize for pure methodology or total synthesis in the near future? The palladium and metathesis prizes were quite belated. In the last twenty years most chemistry Nobels have been awarded to biochemistry-related research. And going by the current trends, we can be sure to see more prizes for materials science (it looks kind of prophetic that conducting polymers kicked off the new millennium in 2000)

  4. The list from 1981-1997 is here. Lots of computational chemists here (Pople, Schleyer, Schaeffer are in the top 10), it would be interesting to compare this list with the current list by field.

    Full disclosure - I'm #847...


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