The Pope of Orgo at Harvard

March 13th, 2013

Is anyone else loving this papal conclave?  It’s so refreshing to hear people actually speaking Latin. The constant parade of cardinals in the news just brought to mind a quick story from grad school:

At a weekly meeting of teaching assistants, one of the profs I taught for told us about a professor who came to the department as a visitor to teach sophomore organic chemistry. On the first day of the semester, he introduced the course’s teaching assistants and finished by saying that he was the pope, the TAs were his cardinals, and you never go directly to the pope.

As with the infamous Guido letter, it is always interesting to hear of a professor embracing his villainy. Habemus jerkface.


18 Responses to “The Pope of Orgo at Harvard”

  1. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I thought the Pope of Orgo at Harvard was Woodward. I can also totally imagine him saying that.

  2. Paul Says:

    This occurred after Woodward’s death, but that raises an interesting exercise: who would be the Pope of Orgo if the selection were made for life and you assume that the cardinals would vote for the most accomplished living organic chemist at the time of the conclave?

    My thoughts:

    Fredrich Wohler (until 1882)
    Adolf von Baeyer (1882 – 1917)
    Emil Fischer (1917 – 1919)
    Victor Grignard (1919 – 1935)
    Robert Robinson (1935 – 1975)
    R.B. Woodward (1975 – 1979)
    H.C. Brown (1979 – 2004)
    E.J. Corey (from 2004)

    Current papabili: Roberts, Grubbs, Evans

  3. Chemjobber Says:

    Is the Guido letter the greatest heel turn in the history of organic chemistry?

  4. excimer's ghost Says:

    I vote for Evans, because he’d be called Pope Dave

  5. artchem Says:

    E. J. Corey of course. His legacy it’s the proof.

  6. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    The current pope would clearly be E.J. Corey who I think has been pope since the death of Woodward. I concur with your other names except that I might add von Liebigs, William Henry Perkin and Augustus Kekulé. Baran is clearly a promising future candidate for the papacy.

    They used to refer to Fermi as the Pope for his infallibility in physics.

    For a long time theoretical chemistry had its own pope in the person of the aptly named Pople. That position is still vacant.

  7. Paul Says:

    The conclave of 1979 would have been very tough. I have to imagine the college of physical organic chemists would have insisted on some recognition in the wake of the developments of the 50s, 60s, and 70s during the pontificates of two strongly synthetic popes.

  8. Aquanerd Says:

    Speaking of popes… Did you know the new Pope, Pope Francis has a Masters degree in Chemistry!

  9. Paul Says:

    I did! ;)


  10. Mike Says:

    Did he write a thesis? Publish any papers?

  11. El Selectride Says:

    Your approach is too simplistic. First, you need to figure out who would be the Cardinals. All Full Professors? Only Endowed Professors? Department Chairs? Only Total Synthesis people?

    You think the Hoffman faction would let Corey get elected?

    Which way would the methodology people go? What about the materials, polymer, physical, ChemBio and computational guys? It’s conceivable that they’d argue back and forth enough that eventually you’d end up with something completely unexpected and non-controversial like Pope Danheiser.

  12. Paul Says:

    Yes, there is no way H.C. Brown could have ever won the support of a supermajority after his battles with Winstein. Everyone would be too worried that he’d issue a papal bull declaring chemists who spread the idea of non-classical carbocations would be excommunicated.

    More thoughts: would the Americans have consented to a Derek Barton papacy? I think Andy Streitweiser or George Hammond would have made a good compromise pope.

  13. MITpost-doc'78 Says:

    Actually Professor Jack E. Baldwin made the comment about being like the Pope to his MIT organic chemistry class in 1978 while he was on the faculty and before he went to take up the Oxford chair in 1979. I could give the whole story but the gist was that there was a hieracy for students to seek advice about their organic chemistry, TA’s being like the Catholic churches parish priests and the first place stop for your questions, if they couldn’t answer it, then the senior tutor ‘like a bishop’ should be consulted, and so on up the ladder until he compared himself to being like the Pope and he was not available to answer student questions because ‘I speak to no-one but God’.

    For his trouble Jack was later cream-pied in one of the classes but had the wit to call for the doors to be immediately locked and for the TA’s present to take the names of the many students who fortuitiously happened to have a camera with them that day.

  14. Paul Says:

    Ooh…thanks. I guess the story got twisted over time. It’s interesting to hear that Baldwin had a second set of rules!

    Alternately: Baldwin rules…with an iron fist!

  15. eugene Says:

    How does Grubbs count as organic? We’re including organometallics now?

  16. martin Says:

    nice article but the new Pope is a chemistry technician, it does not have a MS in chemistry.

  17. The Iron Chemist Says:

    Does anyone want to include Antipopes?

  18. a Says:

    We want more of the pie-ing story of baldwin.


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