Top 10: Greatest Organic Chemists of All-Time

February 15th, 2007

As part of the ChemBark 2.0 Initiative (set to launch in mid-2018), I want to transfer most of the chemistry-related posts from the old blog on to this one.  Since A Synthetic Environment has been firing off a bunch of top 5 lists, this seems like a good time for a blast from the past: my list of the top 10 organic chemists ever…

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. He is also one of the poster boys (along with Marker and Julian) for using plants as sources of steroidal starting materials needed for industrial syntheses.  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

Commenter suggestions: Percy Julian, Grignard, Pasteur, Winstein, Sharpless, Dervan

Previous Comments

  1. eugene Says:
    February 15th, 2007 at 10:08 pm Hey, I don’t see Evan’s name…
  2. milkshake Says:
    February 15th, 2007 at 11:28 pm And I don’t see mine. (But it is forgivable – you are not quite the first case of such obvious lack of foresight that I encountered over the years…)Seriously now, I think we should nominate Katritzky for the top slot. He filled the much needed gap in the literature.
  3. Chemgeek Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 12:02 am I nominate this post for post of the year. It seems so simple, but sometimes, it pays to look down and see who’s shoulders we are standing on. Well, done. (Too bad you forgot Milkshake)
  4. dan Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 1:02 am Ivar Ugi, anyone?
  5. een of andere vent Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 2:51 am Nice list. Woodward may claim the first place in my ‘top 5 dead chemists’ as well. He is leading now together with Friedrich Wöhler.
  6. petr Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 5:33 am it is new to me that fischer became insane due to the exposure to some chemical. did that happen duering his work on barbital? he died of cancer, actually.
  7. ZAL Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 6:26 am Maybe not for the Top 10, but I see a lack of Japan here: Ryoji Noyori (not only reductions! Enantioselective alkylzinc additions, work on oxidations using H202…) and Teruaki Mukaiyama (aldol reactions, many many publications over many years, training of generations of japanese chemists).
    Also, Vladimir Prelog?
  8. chm Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 6:49 am Karl Ziegler would be on my list. Not only for his later work on polymerization but especially for the organolithium chemistry.
  9. John Spevacek Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 7:56 am What I love about Fischer’s lucky guess is that he had a 1 in 16 chance to get it right – which he did. Ben Franklin had a 1 in 2 chance of getting the direction of electron flow right and he didn’t.
  10. rb Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 9:33 am I don’t agree with Djerassi, but otherwise a great list. If there was room for one more synthetic chemist, I would vote for Danishefsky…he keeps getting better with age.Good call on HC Brown. Don’t forget he also gave us sodium borohydride and lithium aluminum hydride.
  11. Hap Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 11:48 am 6) That would be phenylhydrazine I think – it makes nice sugar derivatives (crystalline ones) but also dead and insane chemists if not handled properly. I don’t think anyone knew that at the time, though.
  12. Uncle Al Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 12:08 pm Poppa Carl alone at #9 is not wholly justified. Include Russell Marker. Called an idiot for proposing plant-sourced steriod synthesis, he fled to Mexico. After diddling niggerhead yams (cabeza de negraand diosgenin – “birther of god”) in gourds… progesterone by the kilogram,http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/ht…..scoreamed/

    Syntex’ brilliance included dolling out norethindrone in milligram not kilogram lots. One doubts Poppa Carl will get a Nobel. Freeing women from fear of pregnancy has been a planetwide social and economic disaster.

  13. j Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 3:00 pm speaking of syntex, did anyone see that show about percy julian? i had never heard of that guy in my life. (and for what he accomplished at the time, i vote fischer as #1, rb #2)
  14. excimer Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 3:40 pm Ziegler needs to be all up in this bitch. Where’s the love for the polymer chemists? Ziegler, Wallace Caruthers (who most likely would have won a nobel prize had he not killed himself), Roy Plunkett, Carl Marvel- all outstanding chemists. Guess like I’ll have to make my own top 5.And let’s not forget that a woman was the driving force behind Kevlar.
  15. Bugbear Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 4:25 pm I am kind of glad KCN is not on the list
  16. Matt J. Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 4:35 pm I’d put Suzuki in the honorable mention, only because his coupling reactions are so commonplace in all aspects of academia and industry. Of course, then you could make the argument for a half-dozen other chemists, too.
  17. Anonymouse Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 6:40 pm #16Suzuki was the 2nd chemist to use boronic acids to form C-C bonds using palladium. The first was Dick Heck who also discovered the Heck Reaction, the Sonagashira reaction(before Sonagashira), Pd Catalyzed Carbonylation and transfer hydrogenation using formates and Pd.
  18. DCC Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 7:27 pm How about Clark Still from Columbia?
    Couple of his contributions;
    - Article on flash column chromatography
    - Macromodel
  19. Bootsy Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 8:39 pm Djerassi just doesn’t belong in this league. Nothing against him, but to put him above Heck and Zeigler and in the same class as Brown…just feels wrong. I agree with previous comments that the list is awfully short on polymer chemists. Does anyone really doubt how synthetic polymers have impacted our daily lives? I second the nomination of Carothers and give the boot to Carl.Of course, if I had to name the person whose contribution I use more than any others in my daily chemistry lab work, it would have to be Still.

    Fun debate though. What about Merrifield for solid phase peptide synthesis?

  20. Paul Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 9:21 pm OK OK, Djerassi can go. Are polymer chemists organic chemists? I would consider them materials chemists, but the distinctions between these areas aren’t exactly black and white.
  21. Wavefunction Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 9:52 pm I agree with Carothers’s nomination. Important guy…probably the single most important polymer chemist of the twentieth century.
    About Djerassi, I have read that between 1950 and 1960, he had more citations than any organic chemist in the world. This when there were stalwarts like Woodward, Winstein etc.
    I would also give Breslow and Westheimer a fair chance to be on this list. Pioneers in bioorganic chemistry.
  22. K Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 11:10 pm Even though I essentially agree with Uncle Al’s point, you can’t argue that Djerassi hasn’t had huge effects on the world at large. I suppose it’s up to the historical among us to decide how inevitable BCP would be without Djerassi.The only other chemists who can claim as much societal importance are the folks who industrialized penicillin. Without that, none of us would be here.
  23. Proton Says:
    February 16th, 2007 at 11:20 pm I agree that Djerassi does not belong on the list (or you would have to include all sorts of people in the same catagory–for example, Wohler for the synthesis of urea and so on).Derek Barton should be somewhere on your list.

    Runners up:
    Adolf Butenandt (discovered pheremones)
    Ingold (electronic theory of organic reactions)
    Gilbert Stork (as mentioned above)

  24. milkshake Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 1:07 am I like Diels and Alder. They are the Lords of teh ringz.
    And Merrifield – even the dumb biologists can make their peptides now.
  25. Tynchtyk Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 7:11 am I agree with Proton, where is Sir Derek Barton?
  26. X-tra long Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 7:32 am I nominate Gilbert Stork for the first total synthesis of quinine.
  27. Bort Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 9:46 am Woodward #1 for sure, no question. OF course EJ Corey deserves it. But I wouldn’t put guys like Danishefsky, Niccolau, or Evans in this league and I’m glad you didn’t. Brown and Olah are definite top ten also.
  28. Asia Minor Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 12:23 pm Life would go on without the pill. Can you imagine modern society without polymers!? Polymer chemists are definitely organic chemists. Add Carothers. Find someone else to boot and add Stork.
  29. Ψ*Ψ Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 1:47 pm Um, maybe YOUR life would go on without the pill? Mine wouldn’t.
  30. milkshake Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 3:39 pm I think you are way too young to know about these things, missy.
  31. Ψ*Ψ Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 8:44 pm Well, if I were YOUR age, milkshake, I certainly wouldn’t have any need for it, would I?Actually, taking the pill continuously (certain types are designed for this) can provide relief from endometriosis symptoms. Being laid out on the couch from pain of that intensity for two weeks out of every month? Not exactly conducive to productivity in the lab. Of course, since the majority of the commenters here are men, I wouldn’t expect this to be considered. (you can’t hear me but i said that without any sarcasm or condescent)

    Long live Djerassi!

  32. Bootsy Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 9:31 pm One more that came to me today was Max Tishler. Give us industry folk a person on the list. Also, I think he can reasonably be looked at as someone who made medicinal chemistry what it is today by bringing in a serious synthetic commitment.I might be fuzzy on some of the history, so flame away if I’m pegging him wrong.
  33. Wolfie Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 10:13 pm I am still worrying why Paul wants to be like all these people. I mean, he has understood that even a Ph.D. in Harvard is a difficult thing, not to mention all these laurels or Nobles in Organic Chemistry.Anyway, Harvard does not make you happy, necessarily, that’s what I have understood.
  34. milkshake Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 10:30 pm Harvard is better to be from than at, definitely.Can I nominate Paul Janssen, as a medicinal chemist genius?
  35. chauvinist Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 10:57 pm To #29 and #31,If research had been a women’s profession your voice would never have been listen. Now we listen to you not because of your intellect but just to know your gender’s perception on what you say. So long as you have us, curious audiance, you might not get an opportunity to understand why people (men) listen to your silly things. So women understand it only at their old age.
  36. Wolfie Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 10:59 pm in theory, yes. If you cannot make things work after Harvard, you will have failed there and here. (As long as you don’t meet enough Ivy League companions that have failed like yourself).
  37. Wolfie Says:
    February 18th, 2007 at 12:13 am and, just by the way, I also need to add someone. Seebach. Do you you know who is Seebach ? Or Wüthrich (probably). Anyway, I am very happy that an American graduate student is capable of spelling Adolf Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Ritter von Baeyer in the right way, since most other American students cannot even spell their own language correctly (sad, but true).
  38. TWYI Says:
    February 18th, 2007 at 6:47 pm Eschenmoser
  39. European Chemist Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 4:54 am I suppose you’ve excluded the more Organometallic personalities of our time… what about Trost or Schrock?
  40. treehugger Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 9:06 am Wheres Wilkinson????
  41. treehugger Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 9:16 am errrrr…..if we were talking about organometallic chemists, that is (blush). But if Schrock is gonna be on the list you have to include Grubbs. Schrock was the hardcore inorganic side of metathesis, Grubbs the creamy, delicious organic side. Wheres the love for Peter Schultz?
  42. treehugger Says:
    February 22nd, 2007 at 9:17 am errrrr…..if we were talking about organometallic chemists, that is (blush). But if Schrock is gonna be on the list you have to include Grubbs. Schrock was the hardcore inorganic side of metathesis, Grubbs the creamy, delicious organic side. Where’s the love for Peter Schultz?
  43. Carbazole Says:
    February 23rd, 2007 at 1:21 am I heard from someone in my group that Corey was packing it in, at least at the rate that a faculty member does. No more grad students, and cutting back on incoming post-docs. This information came via a friend of my coworker who is a current post-doc. Any corroboration?
  44. European Chemist Says:
    February 23rd, 2007 at 4:31 am I’d rather ask, is there any sense in joining the group of a professor who’s almost 80? What can you expect from such an experience other than a nice name to put on your CV?
  45. My Lord, My Guide Says:
    February 23rd, 2007 at 5:30 am What is the advantage even with such a name in our CV? After all, every ‘experienced’ scientists have the same feeling as of European Chemist and are aware of its worthlessness. The only advantage is that you can ’shine’ among ignorants/girls.
  46. TWYI Says:
    February 27th, 2007 at 5:17 pm I am not sure ‘worthlessness’ is the word to be used here.Working for a Nobel laureate, even if he is in his twilight years carries a huge amount of advantages.
  47. Mark C R UK Says:
    March 8th, 2007 at 9:52 pm I don’t see Fritz Haberof the Haber-Bosch process fame…Or is this the ever present taint of the mustard that seems to have enveloped his legacy.

    I’m British, and I have to acknowledge the man.

    I do not doubt that hindsight in life made him realise that he’d made mistakes.

    We have to remember his discoveries have helped feed billions of people in addition to the millions that have died due to him.

    If ever a paradoxical and interesting scientist lived – then F Haber is certainly one.

  48. AJAC Says:
    March 21st, 2007 at 5:27 am Good grief, where’s Derek Barton? And Alexander Todd?
  49. eugene Says:
    March 21st, 2007 at 9:24 am Haber was not an organic chemist. He’s one of the top ten chemists of all time, but this category excludes him.
  50. carmen Says:
    March 21st, 2007 at 11:19 am I’m wondering whether anyone’s done a post like this one bracket style.
  51. ‘TNT’-AC/DC Says:
    April 12th, 2007 at 6:32 pm what about the top 10 lousiest organic chemists of all time?
  52. Paul Says:
    April 12th, 2007 at 6:36 pm Or perhaps the ten most over-rated? I think I’ll abstain from making any nominations.
  53. James Ruth Says:
    May 3rd, 2007 at 11:45 am In my first class in organic chemistry many years ago, the instructor told us that Fischer had gone insane from overexposure to the chemicals he had worked with. The Nobel bio, which seems to have fairly wide distribution on the internet, says that he died of cancer. Encyclopedia Britannica states that cancer had been chemically induced, but that Fischer had committed suicide after the death of his sons in WWI. Does anybody have a solid reference for how Fischer met his demise and whether or not he was of sound mind?
  54. Mr I. Like Metallocenes Says:
    May 23rd, 2007 at 6:05 pm I guess all those plastics you have in your life that are made with metallocene catalysts are not all that important. I would love to see the world without them. Here is to Geoffrey Wilkinson for all his efforts in that field. Hard to name any individual as being better or more important as there are so many that contributed to each other’s success, including those listed. Without a piece of the puzzle, the picture could and would be much different.
  55. Beno Says:
    August 7th, 2007 at 1:53 am What about Michael Blair – Monash Univeristy?
  56. Ronald Quinn Says:
    September 23rd, 2007 at 2:22 pm They don’t look smart, don’t they? They know how to lick other people’s arses to get funding for research. They steal other people’s ideas
  57. Ronald Quinn Says:
    September 23rd, 2007 at 2:33 pm what about John Faulkner-Scripps or Rob Capon-Uni of Melbourne?
  58. Ronald Quinn Says:
    September 23rd, 2007 at 2:35 pm THEY DON’T LOOK SMART, DON’T THEY? THEY KNOW HOW TO LICK OTHER PEOPLE’S ARSES TO GET FUNDING FOR RESEARCH. THEY STEAL OTHER PEOPLE’S IDEAS.
  59. Clifford Sampson Says:
    September 29th, 2007 at 10:35 am Linus Pauling. The chemist’s chemist. No list is complete with out him.

4 Responses to “Top 10: Greatest Organic Chemists of All-Time”

  1. Sid Says:

    François Auguste Victor Grignard should not be forgotten

  2. wolfie Says:

    When a reagent includes Mg or S, is it then organic ?

    Of course it is. No human being could survive without S or Mg.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    You peoples forget the name of Dr. A K saxrna……

  4. Anonymous Says:

    You people forget the name of Dr. A K saxena…..the father of QSAR and Mother of Synthetic Organic Chemistry….


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