Field of Science

Who's the world's greatest living chemist?

Roald Hoffmann: My candidate for
title of 'world's greatest living chemist'
Since we have been making lists of Nobel Prize candidates for the last few weeks and since we already have a few lists of "greatest chemist in history", I thought I would ask for a different kind of selection: Who would be a candidate for the title of 'greatest living chemist'?

Now I would be the first one to admit that any kind of 'greatest' list is always fuzzy and subjective, partly because the meaning of 'greatest' can be highly subjective and controversial. But in this particular case I am thinking of criteria that should be generally acceptable. I also realize that I making this list is like a mouse making a list of the world's most eminent cats, but since there are always more mice than cats and the cats don't usually bother to make such lists themselves I think that's ok.

To begin with, the candidate should be a top-notch scientist since otherwise there wouldn't be a point to that word 'chemist' in the title; to gain an idea of who such people may be it might be instructive to run down the list of Nobel Laureates in chemistry or Priestley Medalists. But simply doing outstanding chemistry is not enough since most of us realize (or should realize, ideally) that there is more to good science than just doing good science. With this in mind I am thinking of some other criteria that would qualify someone for that title: for instance; an excellent teaching and mentoring record, memorable contributions to chemistry education and significant service in terms of chemistry outreach. 

That last bit is important and involves things like serving as editor of a major journal, popularizing chemistry or the cause of chemistry and chemists through popular literature and public talks and serving on official commissions, societies etc. Also, it goes without saying that the greatest living chemist is bound to be an older person since even brilliant younger people simply haven't had the time to make such sweeping contributions. This is one of those few times when 'distinguished and gray' would be preferable to 'young and swashbuckling'.

So without further ado, here is a very personal (and short) list of people I would consider good candidates for the title of 'greatest living chemist'.

1. R. B Woodward: Unfortunately he is no more, but I just wanted to put his name down to make the point that if your scientific contributions were of his caliber, you would probably earn the title without ever giving a single public talk or training a single student. But moving on...

2. E. J. Corey: Woodward's Nobel Prize-winning heir in the field of synthetic organic chemistry. The man is a legend in the universe of reagents and products, and for good reason: There is not a single academic, government or industrial laboratory in the world that does not use a synthetic approach developed by Corey's group. When it comes to practical organic chemistry, his achievements to the field surpass that of anyone else, probably including Woodward. 

Corey has also been a phenomenal and unsurpassed trainer of chemists, having trained over a hundred graduate students and two hundred postdocs; his extended family now occupies the nooks and crannies of almost every major chemistry institution. Sadly his career has been marked by a few graduate student tragedies, but in my book the balance of his contributions still eminently marks him as a candidate.

3. Roald Hoffmann: Hoffmann won the Nobel Prize in 1981 but as evidenced just by the list of papers he co-authored this year, he is still making solid contributions more than 30 years later. Hoffmann is also one of those few chemists who seems to be knowledgable in almost every theoretical aspect of the subject; over the years he has authored papers on diverse chemical species ranging from unstable ions to extended inorganic lattices to metal-organic frameworks. 

But what really marks him apart for me are his efforts in the service of the public understanding of chemistry. He has done more to popularize the cause of chemistry and to communicate the essential philosophy of the subject more than any other chemist of his caliber (I reviewed his latest collection of essays here); also importantly, he hosted the TV series "The World of Chemistry". In addition he is a notable playwright and public speaker, and since 2001 has hosted a science cafe in New York City which explores connections between science, art and poetry. These key public achievements, in addition to his prolific chemistry research, catapult Hoffmann to the top of the list on my opinion.

4. Carl Djerassi: Hoffmann's partner in crime when it comes to writing plays and novels, Djerassi has not been any less prolific even though he has given up actual research for a while now. He is of course best known as the father of the pill, and the social and cultural impact of this invention simply cannot be overestimated. In addition he rivals Hoffmann in conducting public readings, writing plays and giving talks on chemistry. His two memoirs ("Steroids Made it Possible" and "The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas's Horse") are eminently readable. Definitely a worthy candidate.

5. George Whitesides: Whitesides is another chemist whose sheer diversity of research may be unparalleled. His lab has worked on everything from the solution structure of lithium cuprates to NMR spectroscopy to scenarios for the origins of life. He has also trained an impressive number of chemists. But Whitesides is also hugely influential on the national and international chemistry scene. He has advised presidents and served on important commissions. Most importantly, his contributions to the cause of chemical education have also been notable. With Felice Frankel he authored a lavishly illustrated book on science at the nanoscale. He has written a highly cited article on how to write a scientific paper. And as I have mentioned in a few posts, many of his review articles go to the heart of what directions chemistry should take and how chemists should communicate the importance of their science to the public. Whitesides is as good a candidate for our title as anyone else.

6. Ronald Breslow: It must not have been easy being Ron Breslow during the last few years. But it shouldn't have been too hard either. If we are really talking about all rounders then Breslow may possibly top the list. As a researcher his fame - dinosaurs notwithstanding - is enormous and wholly well-deserved. He has won almost every prize out there. In addition he has mentored outstanding students who now occupy the leading centers of academic chemistry around the country, and one of them has even won a Nobel Prize. As if all this were not enough, Breslow has served as President of the ACS and has co-authored important official reports about chemistry and chemical education. For his tremendous work as a scientist and all-round educator I think Breslow should be on the list.

So that's my short selection of people for the title of 'greatest living chemist'. Other potential names on the list would be Allen Bard, Jacqueline Barton, Richard Zare, Jack Roberts, Harry Gray, Ken Houk and Martin Karplus. All of these folks demonstrate some notable combination on top-notch research, high quality mentorship and chemistry service and outreach.

All of them and more are eminently deserving, but if I had to really pick one as a personal favorite I would pick Roald Hoffmann. To me his prolific chemical output combined with his passion for exploring the interaction of chemistry with art, poetry and philosophy and then actually communicating these interactions to the public through books and talks set him apart. A rare breed of scientist.

Offer your own suggestions in the comments section!


  1. You can't judge people this way. Values are vectors not scalars. That's why people can be both good and bad at the same time. A simple scalar, a single number, can never capture all (or enough) of what it is to be a human being. On my website, under "Book", see the second chapter in my book Twelve Papers.

  2. That is a wonderful list of living great chemists. I am not a fan of selecting the ‘greatest’ in any single category but I love lists like this. That said I would not disagree with your choice for the greatest. Since chemistry is largely ignored by science writers I was unaware of the non-Nobel winners you listed. I especially enjoyed reading about Djerassi and his remarkable exodus to the US during the war. Sure it is not as harrowing as Hoffmann’s experience but he and his mom were lucky to get out of Austria. By the way, do you know why Hoffmann gave up is birth name of Roald Safran?

    Anyway, thanks Ash for this list that took me on a brief but very entertaining journey.

    M Tucker

    1. I am actually not aware of why Hoffmann changed his name!

  3. Although I am in no position to give one name to be "the greatest", I think Karl Wieghardt is definitely among the greatest.

  4. I like your top 5. To the list of contenders, I'd like to add Dave Evans (who has had a profound influence on how organic chemistry is taught) and Dudley Herschbach.

  5. Richard Silverman deserves a mention for his mechanistic work, the discovery of Lyrica, and other projects that also seem to be progressing very well.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS