An Old Foray into the Corey Lab

August 20th, 2010

Perhaps the only legitimate traffic sent to the old blog was via the Wikipedia article for E.J. Corey.  Someone decided to link to my picture of the famous traffic light at the door to Corey’s office at Harvard.  Since this photo came down with the rest of the blog, I figured I’d get the pic back up in our first trip to the archives:

Photo of E.J. Corey's Office Door Traffic Light

That’s it, in all its glory.  When wishing to speak to Professor Corey, you would present yourself at his door and wait for a green light (i.e., enter) or red light (i.e., go away).  I’m not sure whether you knocked or pressed a button—I never mustered the pluck to talk with him.  I am told that anyone was welcome at his office and that everyone was expected to go through the same procedure.

In the comments on the original post, someone named “Pete” left this story:

With intent it was installed. Its effectiveness no doubt keeps it fucntioning although not ever seeing it “in use” during my 2+ years of observation whie taking the elevator from the 3rd floor to the basement to take an NMR. I am sure it is was it is living up to the reputation. The mildly interesting story I have on the matter is as follows.

Professor Kishi, a great scientist in his own right and a student of the great Professor Robert Woodward, wanting to chat with professor Corey pounded on the door to E.J.s in the presence of an able, albeit unsuspecting, student found himself standing in front of door with the “red light” signal. I should note that E..J.s office door, painted flat blue if I remember correctly but otherwise unremarkable, looks more like that of an entrance to a service box. The door is unusually flush with the wall with little to no threshold suggesting nothing of significance inhabits the other side, certainly not a Nobel Prize winner. Whether Kishi had specific knowledge that E.J. was in his office or whether he was interested in testing the innate behavior of a Harvard Graduate student is unknown but what followed was certainly consisent with Kishi using the situation to entertain himself. Kishi, perhaps being overly comfortable at identifying and taking advantage of opportunities to run experiments at the expense of others, went to work without hesitation. Kishi pounded on the door in the presence of the unsuspecting student. The light red light flashed. The student already feeling uncomfortable with what he had just observed responded to Kishi’s insolent question of “What is this?” with a quick retort of “That means don’t bother me know, I’m busy”. The student unable to move on at that moment was held in place by a more intense repetition of the action of Professor Kishi. The student was torn between escaping, informing Kishi of the impact of the transgression, and wanting to see what would follow. Again the red light flashed and this time with increased frequency. The student felt obligated to warned Kishi again that E.J. is busy and this means “not now”. Kishi, finding some sense of satisfation on the student’s apparent uneasiness of what had transpired in the past 20 to 30 seconds pounded even louder on the door. The student not understanding what was going on stood there frozen in fear and unable to move while Kishi stepped back against the wall and let the event he set into motion ensue. E.J., clearly upset that the red light was not sufficient in sending his caller away, opened the door ready to let someone, anyone, have it, so to speak. The student was there, feet glued to the floor, awaiting E.J.s onsluaght-a veritable deer in the head lights. Kishi, unable to contain himself began to laugh in his familiar way, wheezing while shaking his head sdie to side (think Precious the dog from Hong Kong Fouey). Immediately E.J. saw Kishi standing there, as well as the ashened faced student. Without hesitation E.J. dimissed the student and graciously invited Kishi into his office, himself realizing some gratification in that the student was shaken.

I’m a little conflicted as to what to think of the system.  On one hand, you have to admire the objectivity and fairness  of it.  Assuming Corey didn’t have a secret camera pointed at the entrance to his office, anyone could make it inside to chat with the Nobel laureate—it was just a matter of whether he was busy or not.  On the other hand, there is something degrading about having to obey a traffic signal in a hallway.  I don’t think you can make an argument that it saves any time, because Corey still has to stop whatever it is he’s doing inside to respond to the requests to enter.  (Again, I am making an assumption that he doesn’t flip a switch when he’s busy such that any requests to enter are automatically red lighted).

I prefer the system of my undergrad boss.  His office door was open 99% of the time he was inside, and if he was busy, he’d just say so and arrange to talk to you later.  Open doors provide one less psychological barrier to communication, and that’s definitely a good thing between advisors and students.

Here are some other pics taken on my jaunt through the Corey lab (way back in 2006):

Photo of E.J. Corey's Office Door and Traffic Light

E.J. Corey Lab Sign

E.J. Corey Lab Sign

E.J. Corey Lab Sign

E.J. Corey Lab Sign

E.J. Corey Lab Fridge

The Wayback Machine archive of the original post is here.

12 Responses to “An Old Foray into the Corey Lab”

  1. eugene Says:

    E.J. Corey — ass

  2. eugene Says:


  3. Chemjobber Says:

    I was the linker. You’re welcome. :-)

  4. Steven Says:

    I laughed myself silly while reading the story. I have had professors like that, but certainly not to that extreme. When I later married one, I was privy to the fact that some of them love to terrorize their students just for the fun of it.

  5. wolfie Says:

    As I mentioned years ago, my advisor in my diploma thesis had been a Post-Doc in Corey’s lab, and he seemed to be always proud of the fact, and of Corey. But he was not nearly as parsimonious as Corey is being depicted here. At one point, he told me : you’d better ordered this compound instead of having made it yourself. Well, he did not win the Nobel Prize, only some big award in Germany, but now he is in Vienna.

  6. Pauline W. Says:

    There is so much abuse in the educational system regardless if it is elementary school or grad school. Medical school abuse is legendary. When are we going to take a stand and say these acts of arrogance do not benefit anyone. Just because you have suffered at the hands of a cruel teacher, doesn’t entitle you to humiliate or degrade anyone else.

  7. RB Woodweird Says:

    EJ is such a noob. When I was alive, I had only one light outside my office, and it was always on. It was labeled:


  8. Andrew Says:

    Wow, reading this post brought back all kinds of deja vu of a professor that I had who lived to torture his students. Of course, he was not a chemist, not at Harvard, and this traffic light office entry system was way out of his league…..

  9. Robert Says:

    Whether or not Professor Corey was good with his students or not, I think the office traffic light system is awesome!!

    Maybe I should consiser getting one myself!! :-)

  10. Garrett Says:

    We would like to think that the light is a cool thing, but if we were the ones that pushed it, and got a red….we would be ticked! Of course you cannot do this sort of thing to potential customers, but if you had people that wanted to take up your time just to say they talked to the famous so and so, then this light might be a good way for you to get your own work done!– Garrett

  11. james Says:

    I never had a professor like Corey, but we did have a Professor Mike Cheshire, we nicknamed him the ‘Cheshire Cat’, not quite sure why. We often had names for our teachers, the Cheshire Cat is the only one i can think of that i can say publicly without being rude. It must have been cos he was a good guy. Anyways “Don’t Waste A Drop Of Water” is a commendable mantra indeed!

  12. Mark Says:

    Hilarious – you wouldn’t want to be color-blind with him would you. And there’s me thinking my uni lecturer used to be hard to approach! Best I change my ‘Do Not Disturb’ status on Skype right now …

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