Field of Science

A terrible year for academic organic chemistry

In the last one year, academic chemistry has lost Jack Roberts, Jerome Berson, George Olah, Gilbert Stork and now Ron Breslow. The last two in just one week. 

It's been a terrible loss. All these chemists were world-renowned pioneers in their areas who laid the foundations of much of what graduate students now learn in their textbooks and what professional chemists apply in their laboratories. They were the last torch bearers of the golden age of organic chemistry, the age which laid the foundations of the three pillars of organic chemistry: structure, reactivity and synthesis.

Jack Roberts pioneered NMR spectroscopy in the United States. He should really have received a Nobel Prize for this contribution in my opinion. But in addition to this, he was also one of the foremost practitioners of molecular orbital theory and made very significant contributions to conformational analysis and carbocation chemistry.

Jerome Berson was another important physical organic chemist who also wrote what I consider to be a very unique contribution to the history of science - a book titled "Chemical Creativity", that traces creativity in the work of leading chemists, from Hückel to Woodward.

George Olah was the father of modern carbocation chemistry and an inventor of superacids that allow us to stabilize carbocations. He contributed massively to work that is used in the petrochemical industry and, along with Martin Saunders, delivered the coup de grace that settled the famous non-classical cation controversy for good.

Gilbert Stork about whom much has been written since he passed away just a few days ago was one of the most original synthetic organic chemists of the 20th century. His work on enamine alkylations, radical cyclizations and other key reactions is now part of the textbooks, and so are his several elegant natural product syntheses.

And now Ronald Breslow. Primarily known as a physical organic chemist, Breslow was one of the most versatile chemists of the 20th century whose contributions ranged across the entire chemical landscape. He is famous for many things; for discovering the simplest aromatic system - the cyclopropenium ion, for d-orbital conjugation, for very intriguing work on chemistry in aqueous solvents, for building artificial enzymes, for inventing the marketed drug SAHA (the first histone deacetylase inhibitor) and for exploring the origin of chirality during the origin of life. How many chemists can claim that kind of oeuvre?

Breslow received pretty much every award for science there is out there except the Nobel Prize - the National Medal of Science, membership in the National Academy of Sciences and presidency of the ACS among others. He also saw his share of controversies, although the chemical community always came out wiser for learning from them. 

Most notably, in an age when senior professors are often criticized for using graduate students and postdocs as cheap labor, Breslow was an extraordinary educator. Among his students and postdocs are Robert Grubbs, Robert Bergman and Larry Overman. There is probably not a continent on which some student of his is not doing chemistry. More than once during his talks, he made a pitch for hiring the student or postdoc who had done the work. Breslow belonged to an older, more gentlemanly generation of professors who would make calls to get their students jobs.

I last heard Breslow speak only one year ago at an ACS meeting. Before that I had heard him speak at an ACS meeting about ten years ago. The remarkable thing is that between those ten years he did not seem to have aged, displaying the same boyish enthusiasm and curiosity for chemistry that was always his hallmark. When he received the Priestley Medal in 1999, one of his students said the same thing: "He just doesn't seem to age, certainly not intellectually. Talking to him now is like talking to him 30 years ago. He's got the same enthusiasm, the same excitement about chemistry."

We are all poorer for the loss of Breslow and these other pioneers, but the best thing is that they will be part of the textbooks as long as there is a science of chemistry.

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