The Top 10 Organic Chemists of All-Time

April 16th, 2006

This post originally appeared on

Here’s my list of the top 10 organic chemists of all-time, without regard to nationality or sub-specialty. I’m sure that the list is biased towards academic chemists, because their triumphs tend to be more heralded, but I’m sure most of them took plenty of money from industry, too.

10. George Olah

Olah was a giant in the field of physical-organic chemistry and the study of reactive intermediates. With his development of superacids, he was able to study carbocations and essentially end the debate about the existence of nonclassical ions. He has also been celebrated for his work in organofluorine chemistry and organic synthesis.

9. Carl Djerassi

The “Father of the Pill,” Djerassi’s synthesis of the progestagen norethindrone had huge medical and societal consequences–people of the ’60s and ’70s should thank him for all of the uninhibited sex they enjoyed. Because Djerassi’s pill work can be viewed as a nice, tight package with a profound practical application, I think he’s still got a good shot at picking up a Nobel Prize someday.

8. Paul D. Bartlett

The Bartlett Lab was a physical organic powerhouse, and Frank Westheimer said Bartlett “dominated that field for perhaps four decades.” Bartlett hammered home the concept of using kinetic and stereochemical studies to determine mechanisms, and he elucidated the two-step mechanism of electrophilic additions to olefins and the free radical mechanism of certain polymerizations. He also made important contributions to the study of carbocation stabilization (he synthesized 1-bromonorbornane), hydride transfer, and kinetic vs. thermodynamic control of reactions. Perhaps most importantly, Bartlett is credited with changing the way organic chemistry is taught by introducing the mechanistic perspective that we use today.

7. Sir Robert Robinson

The man made the field of natural product synthesis popular. While he might be condemned for this today, for the latter half of the 20th century, the field drove the discovery and development of new reactions in organic chemistry. His one-step synthesis of tropinone is legendary, and he made fundamental contributions to the structural elucidation and synthesis of steroids, alkaloids, and dyes. He is also credited with inventing the arrow formalism (electron pushing) approach to drawing reaction mechanisms.

6. Jack Roberts

Roberts made numberous contributions to the field of physical-organic chemistry, including his studies of cyclopropylcarbinyl systems and molecular rearrangements. Roberts played a major role in popularizing the use of MO theory among organic chemists and he coined the terms “nonclassical carbocation” and “benzyne.” More importantly, the man essentially brought NMR to organic chemistry. In addition to showing chemists how to use the method to elucidate structure, he pioneered the use of isotopic labels to monitor reaction mechanisms. Despite the fact that NMR is still the single most useful method for the characterization of organic compounds, he hasn’t yet been rewarded with a Nobel Prize. I ask you, where is the justice?

5. H.C. Brown

Sure he won the Nobel Prize for his work with hydroborations, but his contributions to physical-organic chemistry were just as important as those to synthesis. His epic battles with Saul Winstein over the nature of carbocations (classical vs. nonclassical) forced chemists at the time to think critically about how to disprove a mechanism and the existence of a particular reactive intermediate. Of course, Brown’s position on nonclassical ions proved to be wrong, but he made the field better nevertheless.

4. Adolf Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Ritter von Baeyer

Trained by Bunsen and Kekule, Baeyer would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work on aromatic compounds and dyes, which were important at the time for the chemical industry. He is especially famous for his work with indigo. He also synthesized phenolphthalein, fluorescein, and barbituric acid. He studied lactams, terpenes, purines, and polyacetylenes, and conducted seminal work on ring (Baeyer) strain. He also introduced the concept of tautomerization. Baeyer did it all, including training three future Nobel laureates (Fischer, Buchner, and Willstatter) and numerous other famous chemists.

3. Emil Fischer

The German chemist is responsible for developing a number of fundamental synthetic methods, including the Fischer indole synthesis, the Fischer oxazole synthesis, and Fischer esterification. Fischer laid the basis for the entire field of carbohydrate chemistry. His proof of the structure of glucose was a tour de force and don’t forget about his Fischer projections (and his lucky guess). He essentially gave his life to chemistry, as the compounds he worked with literally drove him insane.

2. E.J. Corey

The man is a machine, churning out countless total syntheses, new reaction methods, and well-trained chemists with frightening efficiency. In 2002, he was dubbed “the most cited author in chemistry” by the ACS. His progeny populate both the upper levels of academia and the pharmaceutical industry, and at 77, he’s still going strong.

1. R. B. Woodward

The man is a legend–he revolutionized the fields of structural determination, organic synthesis, and physical-organic chemistry. The Nobel Committee essentially bestowed a lifetime achievement award on him with the ‘65 Prize for “outstanding achievements in the art of organic synthesis,” and he would have won a second in ‘81 for orbital symmetry had he not died in 1979. Some, including Woodward himself, thought that he deserved to share in the ‘73 Prize for the “chemistry of organometallic compounds.” On top of all this, he could drink any other chemist under the table. Salud.

Others meriting consideration (in no particular order): Gilbert Stork, Sir Christopher Ingold, George Hammond, Linus Pauling, Donald Cram, Jean-Marie Lehn, Justus von Liebig, Sir Derek Barton, William von Eggers (the “Bull”) Doering, August Wilhelm von Hofmann

Previous Comments

  1. anon Says:
    April 16th, 2006 at 5:46 pmwhat about Percy Lavon Julian??
  2. Wolfie Says:
    April 16th, 2006 at 9:57 pm Don’t forget the frenchies, without regard to sub-specialty,Francois Auguste Victor GrignardLouis Pasteur

    French fries are now called freedom fries, we know, but not in the rest of the world….

  3. zany Says:
    April 16th, 2006 at 11:11 pm K. Barry Sharpless….Saul Winstein….pretty good list though.
  4. Paul Says:
    April 17th, 2006 at 12:03 am Hmm…I’ve never heard of Percy Lavon Julian. Interesting, but I don’t think he cracks the top 10.Grignard was a one-hit wonder. Pasteur was an awesome scientist, definitely top 10, but I don’t know whether he can be considered a top 40 organicchemist.Saul Winstein should go on the considerations list. I don’t know about Sharpless…I’ve been thinking about a top 10 living, non-emeritus list but there are few clear choices.
  5. Jordan Says:
    April 17th, 2006 at 9:48 amThis is an interesting list. I’ve heard of all of them, but evidently my background isn’t sufficient enough to appreciate all of their contributions (except for the really big names).If you like the historical perspective, you’d really like the book “Chemical Creativity” by Jerome Berson. I’m about half-way through it, and it’s a fascinating read. I’ll bet the Harvard library has it.Anyone have a recommendation for a good book to re-teach myself the “stereoelectronic / MO” approach to mechanism? What little I learned of it in the beginning of my PhD has long since been forgotten.
  6. Catastrophe Waitress Says:
    April 17th, 2006 at 5:59 pm Jordan – Fleming’s “Frontier Orbitals and Organic Chemical Reactions” is good for MO.
  7. Klug Says:
    April 17th, 2006 at 9:26 pmCan’t second CW enough. Picked it up a few months ago; great read and best explanation of hard/soft ever.
  8. Jordan Says:
    April 18th, 2006 at 11:40 am Thanks for the recommendations. They adopted Fleming at my school the year after I took the grad school organic courses. (We were somehow just “expected to know it” coming out of undergrad.) I’ll seek it out. Cheers to all of you.
  9. rhodium Says:
    April 19th, 2006 at 11:27 am I think Peter Dervan could be on the list. I do not think people like Schreiber or Schultz, etc. etc. would be following quite the same path without Peter. Regarding EJ and RBW, I like to make the analogy to students that EJ is Beethoven to RBW’s Mozart. Both are geniuses, but with EJ one has the feeling that if you just could concentrate long enough and hard enough you might come up with just one of his discoveries. But against Woodward, you could never be in the game.
  10. Dos equis Says:
    April 20th, 2006 at 2:03 amMy undergrad advisor worked for Corey. He used to compare Corey and Woodward to Batman and Superman. If you had all the gadgets, you could believe that you too could be Batman, but Superman, NEVER.
  11. The Endless Frontier » Blog Archive » Predicting the ‘06 Nobel in Chemistry Says:
    April 20th, 2006 at 8:00 am […] Putting that list together about the all-time top 10 organic chemists got me thinking about who’s going to win the chemistry Nobel this year (or any year). Since 2000, everyone’s annual guess was olefin metathesis and it finally won. Now that the low-hanging fruit’s been picked, the race is wide open. Below, I’ve thrown out some names and topics that could be recognized this year. I’m doing this on the fly, so I’m sure it’s incomplete…fill in the blanks and we can set odds when we’ve got a complete list of candidates. […]

23 Responses to “The Top 10 Organic Chemists of All-Time”

  1. Paul Says:

    A blast from the past

  2. ChemBark » Blog Archive » Greatest Chemists of All-Time Says:

    […] My confidence in these assignments is low; I could easily have overlooked something.  Feel free to ridicule me in the comments.  And just for fun, here’s a blast from the past: my 2006 list of greatest organic chemists. […]

  3. Paul Says:

    Hmmm…I think I made this list before I knew about Wallace Carothers. One tends to overlook the many contributions of those in industry, which is inexcusable.

    Also, Ingold might nudge Olah, even Djerassi on second consideration.

  4. Membe Keith Says:

    What about Louis Pasteur .i can’t believe you forgot him

  5. Anonymous Says:

    where is KCN?

  6. Chait Says:

    Are you kidding me? Where is Roald Hoffman & Linus Pauling? G. Olah is a great non-classical carbocation chemist, but with limited tools Saul Weinstein had already made predictions about the non-classical carbocation structures as early as 1950. Brown’s position was completely wrong, he does not deserve to be recognized for non-classical carbocation problem.

  7. Paul Says:

    You are going to put Hoffmann and Pauling in the top 10 of *organic* chemists? I’ve already said that I consider Pauling to be the greatest chemist of all time, but I don’t think he cracks the top 10 of orgo.

  8. Mono Says:

    A great case can also be made for Gilbert Stork – he’ s my chemical hero and always will be. The omission of Derek Barton, Alex Todd and Albert Eschenmoser gets one thinking.

  9. Lessons from self-publishing a science textbook by Mark M. Green | Canadian Science Writers' Association Says:

    […] the history of this science, which reaches back many hundreds of years and involves fascinating characters. I was hardly an expert in the history and applications of the science I was teaching – I was a […]

  10. KSH Says:

    Anybody knows what happened to Emil Fischer?
    At Wikipedia it says first that he died from chronic phenylhydrazine poisoning, but later it says that he commited suicide? Did the phenylhydrazine drive him mad enough to commit suicide?

  11. POP Says:

    2. E.J. Corey

    The man is a machine, churning out countless total syntheses, new reaction methods, and well-trained chemists with frightening efficiency.

    Yes, you got it all OK; POP means publish or perrish. Give a look and come back to earth:

    J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2005, 127 (25), 8974-8976
    Org. Lett., 2005, 7 (13), 2699-2701

  12. KSH Says:

    Paul, I would like to hear how you rate the following:
    Sharpless, Evans, Nicolauo, Barry Trost, Eschenmoser, Dieter Seebach.
    Any of them near the top 10? Top 20? Top 50?

  13. Paul Bracher Says:

    @KSH: I am familiar with all of their work and have great respect for it. While the idea of ranking them is tempting, as a matter of self-preservation, I think it’s best if I don’t.

  14. KSH Says:


    I can see your point. Thanks anyways!

  15. Steve Levine Says:

    Robert Woodward was my mother’s first cousin. They played together as children, and were in the same high school class. I guess that’s my only claim to fame. Nice to see him ranked as #1. I think I have a couple photos of him that nobody else has.

  16. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Steve Levine: I’d love to have a scanned copy of those pictures!

  17. Steve Levine Says:

    I have one of him about a year old (looking more like little girl, with hair uncut), held by his mother, with his father standing beside her. That would have been shortly before his father died in the flu pandemic. I have his high school yearbook photo, and a Woodward family reunion photo from the 1950s. Possibly more that I’ve forgotten.

    The first two appear on my website at
    (That URL changes a bit with each site revision, though.) I’ll try to include the third photo in the next site revision.

    If you make any use of the photos, I’d appreciate my name mentioned as the source.

  18. Josh Telser Says:

    I think it has been stated above, but Linus Pauling was the greatest chemist of all time. This supersedes any sub-category.

    I am a fan of Saul Winstein whose career was relatively short; had he had another 10 or 20 years, maybe he would be in the list.

    What about Michael James Steuart Dewar – not top 10, but up there, along with the recently deceased Paul von Rague Schleyer?

    Jay K. Kochi and Gerhard L. Closs are two favorites of mine also (lean towards the physical side); also not top 10 or maybe even 20, but worth thinking about.

  19. Sponge Says:

    what about Werner Bergmann (1904-1959)? Yale chemist who discovered a compound in a particular Caribbean sponge that led to development of treatment for childhood leukemia and other cancers.

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