Field of Science

The linguistic adventures of Robert Burns Woodward

Photo credit: Jeff Seeman
Everyone knows about the supreme scientific achievements of Robert Burns Woodward, but few chemists from today's generation are perhaps acquainted with Woodward's love of the English language. This omission would be easy to remedy, however: anyone who reads Woodward's famous papers on the total synthesis of strychnine, or reserpine or chlorophyll would notice his unusually well-formed sentences, injection of Latin or historic references and allusions to synthetic chemistry as a heroic endeavor. Chemistry being a science whose products and protocols are especially palpable and vivid because of their colors, smells, textures and general visual displays, it was particularly amenable to Woodwardian linguistic flourishes. 

All these qualities are now presented in a delightful paper by my friend, the noted historian of chemistry Jeff Seeman, in Angewandte Chemie. Jeff describes how Woodward's English ancestry and Anglophilic affinities propelled him to develop his love of language and a very distinct style of writing that influenced his peers (in his autobiography, Jack Roberts of Caltech has also commented on some of Woodward's unusual English pronunciation: "mole-e-cule" instead of "mall-e-cule" for instance). Woodward of course considered and practiced organic synthesis as a mix of extreme performance sport and high art, so it's only appropriate that his language matched the elegance of his synthetic creations.

Foremost among his descriptions of compounds, reagents and reactions is what I consider to be the ultimate paean ever paid to a molecule: his tribute to a lowly isothiazole ring and his eloquent description of it as a travel companion to whom one needed to bid farewell after a fateful and adventurous journey. This was from his synthesis of colchicine:

"Our investigation now entered a phase which was tinged with melancholy. Our isothiazole ring had served admirably in every anticipated capacity, and some others as well. … It had enabled us to construct the entire colchicine skeleton, with almost all of the needed features properly in place, and throughout the process, it and its concealed nitrogen atom had withstood chemical operations, variegated in nature, and in some instances of no little severity. It had mobilized its special directive and reactive capacities dutifully, and had not once obtruded a willful and diverting reactivity of its own. Now, it must discharge but one more responsibility—to permit itself gracefully to be dismantled, not to be used again until someone might see another opportunity to adopt so useful a companion on another synthetic adventure. And perform this final act with grace it did.”

Then there's the famous synthesis of strychnine, in which the use of a simple exclamation mark in the first sentence places the project on a whole new level of scientific stardom. Albert Eschenmoser who worked with Woodward on his vitamin B12 synthesis offers an appropriate tribute:

Then there are the military metaphors. Today we might be used to descriptions of complex, multistep, multi-personnel and multiyear syntheses as being akin to climbing great mountains or fighting great battles; one of Woodward's successors, K C Nicolaou, has especially enshrined such comparisons in his reviews, but it was Woodward who was the first to memorialize them. As Jeff explains, Woodward was a serious history buff, and his knowledge of a reference to the Battle of Berezina in which the French under Napoleon achieved a costly victory against the Russians made its way into a review on strychnine. More martial references emerge in his description of efforts to decipher chlorophyll (as an aside, even today, I am struck by how much of the jargon of drug discovery is war-inspired: "targets", "hits" and "campaigns" are only a few examples).

1961: Fresh from his dramatic conquest of the blood pigment, [Hans] Fischer hurled his legions into the attack on chlorophyll, and during a period of approximately fifteen years, built a monumental corpus of fact. As this chemical record, almost unique in its scope and depth, was constructed, the molecule was transformed and rent asunder in innumerable directions, and the fascination and intricacy of the chemistry of chlorophyll and its congeners was fully revealed.”

Jeff considers dozens of other examples where Woodward's facility with language was on generous display: Strychnine possessed a "tangled skein of atoms" and another molecule contained a "felicitously placed carboxyl group and a double bond of good augury". Yet another compound is a "substance precariously balanced on a precipice", presumably by virtue of its instability. Finally, Woodward's love of Latin found its way into more than a few of his papers ("sui generis", "sub judice" and "pari passu").

All this achieves a goal which Woodward may or may not have consciously had in mind: to make synthesis look like high art, supremely arduous mountaineering and inspired military strategy all at once. A memorable paragraph of his on the fundamental motivation for organic synthesis brings together many of these themes and pays a glowing tribute to the the whys of the creation of new molecules:

“The structure known, but not yet accessible by synthesis, is to the chemist what the unclimbed mountain, the uncharted sea, the untilled field, the unreached planet, are to other men. The achievement of the objective in itself cannot but thrill all chemists, who even before they know the details of the journey can apprehend from their own experience the joys and elations, the disappointments and false hopes, the obstacles overcome, the frustrations subdued, which they experienced who traversed a road to the goal. The unique challenge which chemical synthesis provides for the creative imagination and the skilled hand ensures that it will endure as long as men write books, paint pictures, and fashion things which are beautiful, or practical, or both.”

Interestingly at the end of the article, Jeff also discusses the reactions of a few reviewers of Woodward's words who were not as taken by his linguistic playfullness, who thought that his undue emphasis on unusual language often obscured the clarity of the science. I am a bit sympathetic to this view myself. Personally I love reading Woodward's papers, but that's because I am someone who enjoys literature. Others who may not be as enamored of the felicities of language, who may have a no-nonsense approach to the writing of scientific papers and who might not want to wade through the icing before they get to the cake might not appreciate Woodward's language as much. This is not an entirely unfair point: The main purpose of scientific papers is to clarify, explain and enumerate, not to decorate, bedeck and garland. 

There's also another important aspect of scientific writing that especially needs to be considered in this age, one in which science is highly international: scientific papers have to be written for an international audience, and it's not unreasonable to think that the kind of language Woodward used might make his papers harder for those whose first language is not English to understand. In Woodward's time science was a smaller community, the Internet did not exist and the total synthesis of organic molecules was an endeavor whose leading practitioners were largely confined to Europe and the United States. One did not really worry about chemists in China appreciating the meaning of words like "adumbrate", "punctilio", "apposite" and "cavil", all of which were peppered across Woodward's writings. Today we do.

Nonetheless, in case of Woodward these stratospheric incarnations of the English language work, mostly because of the profound feats in science which they herald. The synthesis of strychnine or vitamin B12 is indeed an unprecedented achievement akin to high art, so it doesn't seem out of place for such performances to be described in language that is as novel as the achievements are groundbreaking. 

One can get away with a lot if one is Robert Burns Woodward.


  1. One is reminded of Roald Hoffman's papers as well. I wonder whether the collaboration between him and Woodward wasn't built on their love of language.

    1. It's interesting that you mention Hoffmann since there's a discussion of Hoffmann's comment about his own workman-like style vs Woodward's literary style in the paper. Hoffmann wondered why Woodward did not "polish up" his prose; it turns out that in many of the Woodward-Hoffmann papers Woodward let Hoffmann do most of the writing and did not interfere with the style.

  2. To answer "Not a wine critic"'s question, it was always the chemistry, not the words. For their first paper, they hardly knew each other. Each of them wrote half the article which was then pasted together. For details, see: J. I. Seeman, J. Org. Chem. "Woodward−Hoffmann’s Stereochemistry of Electrocyclic Reactions: From Day 1 to the JACS Receipt Date (May 5, 1964 to November 30, 1964)," 2015, 80, 11632-11671. Nice question, and thanks Ash for the thorough review. Jeff Seeman


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