Character as Destiny: R.B. Woodward and His Personality
“By gad, sir, you are a character, that you are. There's never any telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing.”
- Sidney Greenstreet, as Kasper Gutman, in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
For those who are not, or are only briefly, acquainted with Robert Burns Woodward (April 10, 1917-July 8, 1979), it is my hope that this post will be a treat. To those who have a passing knowledge of his accomplishments, may this serve as a impetus to delve more deeply into the psyche and work of whom many considered the preeminent organic chemist of the 20th century.1
His countless accomplishments encompassed:
· Synthesizing many complex natural products including quinine (via quinotoxine), cholesterol, cortisone, strychnine, lysergic acid, reserpine, chlorophyll2,3, cephalosporin, and colchicine.
· Initiated a new era of synthesizing complex natural products with physical organic chemistry.
· The Woodward-Hoffmann Rules4
· Determining the structure of complex molecules by utilizing infrared spectroscopy.
· And perhaps most importantly, inspiring generations of subsequent chemists with his lectures and achievements.
R.B. Woodward’s biographical page on the Nobel Prize website – the prize was given to him in 1965 for his synthesis of complex organic molecules – lists more than twenty honorary doctorates and numerous other memberships and awards.5 These are the culmination of his work. As an initiation to the person, however, there are many more fruitful places to view this singular mind at work. Within the Nobel Prize site, I suggest reading his Nobel lecture, Recent advances in the chemistry of natural products, recounting the total synthesis of the antibiotic cephalosporin.6 This meticulous and methodical recounting is a nice starting place into his work.
Perhaps invaribly, Woodward’s character was quite remarkable.With his longest known lecture, the “…Cope Award address, Woodward credited University of Basel theoretical chemist Edgar Heilbronner with establishing the “Woodward” as a unit of lecture time lasting five hours and 20 minutes”.7 Thus, his subsequent “shorter” lectures were described as being in "milli-Woodwards". Yet his students and in fact, many chemists in the Cambridge, MA area and beyond, exhibited a nearly insatiable appetite for these riveting three and four hour lectures!8 He used colored chalk and a blackboard, eschewing slides, drawing each structure in crisp detail, all the while chain smoking and drinking Daiquiris from a pitcher, but showing no impairment of his faculties!7 Fortunately, these lectures can still be readily found online.9
For those looking to inquire more into the work of R.B. Woodward, there is ample opportunity to do so online and through his published work.10 There is also a plethora of personal reminisces, aforementioned videos, and appreciations.11 They exhibit an elegance in bearing, language, and thought process, along with his effective and charming demeanor. They present a fuller picture, not only of a bygone era of chemistry and academia, but also of a character that profoundly influenced organic chemistry and synthesis. His impact reverberates to this day.
- Robert B. Woodward - Biographical". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 6 Jul 2017. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1965/woodward-bio.html
- Remembering organic chemistry legend Robert Burns Woodward, http://cen.acs.org/articles/95/i15/Remembering-organic-chemistry-legend-Robert-Burns-Woodward.html
- J.I. Seeman, R.B. Woodward: A Larger-than-Life Chemistry Rock Star, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., 56, 2 (2017). DOI: 10.1002/anie.201702635*
*This article, presented to me by Dr. Andrzej Czerwinski, prompted this blog post. My thanks and appreciation goes to him.