The World’s Most Influential (and Respected) Chemists

June 11th, 2013

Math Chick is UnimpressedPart of the fun of running the blog is using Google Analytics to observe how people stumble across the site. One important way is through search engines. A lot of surfers arrive by searching things like “chemistry Nobel predictions” (landing here), “chemistry hires” (landing here), and “HATU procedure” (landing here). Today, I saw a new search string that piqued my interest: “who is the world’s most influential chemist?”

Hmmm…who is the world’s most influential chemist?

I decided that the answer had to be a living chemist, and here is the list of candidates I jotted down in three minutes:

Roald Hoffmann
Whitesides
Gray
Nocera
Breslow
Stoddart
Zare
Zewail
Langer
Djerassi
Nate Lewis
Derek Lowe
Rudy Baum
Alivisatos
Lieber
Herschbach
Schreiber
Baran
Nicolaou
Bertozzi
Wender
Trost
Bard
Walsh
Ley
Mirkin

This list is ordered by nothing else other than how quickly the names popped into my head. I am sure that I missed plenty of people, and I know I’d like to strike some people from the list right off the bat.

There are many ways in which you could interpret “influential”. For instance, you could focus on influence with the general public, in which case I think we are in trouble. I don’t think *any* practicing chemist has much sway with the public. (Former chemists, like Angela Merkel, do not count.) I think scientists like Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene in physics; Jane Goodall, Craig Venter, and E.O. Wilson in biology; and Ben Carson in medicine are all respected in their fields and have made serious inroads into interacting with the public. If Hawking held a news conference to discuss something important to him, both physicists and the general public (to some degree) would care. I would also add Michael Green, Ed Witten, Freeman Dyson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Drew Pinsky, and Sanjay Gupta to these lists. But, with that said, I cannot think of a single chemist worthy of grouping with this lot. It is a shame, but let’s move on.

So, rather than focus on influence with the general public, I’ve decided to focus on what chemists have the most influence in the world of chemistry, broadly defined. Somewhere along the line, I thought that in order to have influence among chemists, you would need a fairly broad base of respect, so I posed the question of “who’s the most respected living chemist” to ChemBark’s followers on Facebook and Twitter. Here were the results:

Sharpless
Suzuki
Clark Landis
Whitesides (x 4, +1 like)
Victor Conte (ha)
Alexander Shulgin
Walter White (ha)
Nocera (tagged #sarcasm)
Kroto
Henry Rzepa
Harry Gray (x 2, +4 likes)
Pople (+1 like, but dead)
Corey
Hoffmann (x 3, +2 likes)
Brookhart
Keith Richards (ha)
Crabtree
Schrock

I could blather on forever, but I’m going to just cut to the chase and declare Roald Hoffmann as my most “influential” chemist for two main reasons: (i) he is widely respected and (ii) he uses this respect to exert influence. Hoffmann’s credentials as a top-rate theoretical chemist are impeccable, and he has made significant contributions to a wide range of disciplines. He’s not only won the Nobel Prize and Priestley Medal, but also ACS awards in organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and chemical education. A lot of chemists, from all the corners of our field, know Hoffmann and respect his work.

Second, I don’t think you qualify as “influential” unless you occasionally use your position to exert influence. Hoffmann has done this. He uses his chemistry cred to promote his artistic endeavors, get involved in politics, and do things like protest a conference for a lack of Jewish speakers. I think he also got the better of E.J. Corey in the scuffle over the Woodward-Hoffmann Rules that played out in Angewandte. I don’t think there is another chemist who has waded as deep into as much potential controversy as Hoffmann and come out as clean.

Here are some quick thoughts on other candidates for the title:

Dan Nocera – Nocera does a ton of work in engaging the public, but unfortunately, this has rubbed many “hardcore” chemists the wrong way. While there is certainly an element of self-promotion there, chemistry (as a field, at least) could really use some self-promotion right now.

E.J. Corey – Very highly respected for his scientific contributions, and I think he is the greatest living chemist. That said, the Altom story and the Woodward-Hoffmann scuffle rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. I think there is also a big drop off in respect for Corey outside the world of organic chemistry, but that is mostly because he is considered a God by those inside of it.

George Whitesides – Very respected both inside and outside of chemistry (e.g., government and business). He has also been outspoken (often through editorials published in Angewandte). That said, I think his positions make him somewhat of a polarizing figure. Many love his ideas; many dislike them. That moves him down my list, but I’m glad he has the guts to wade into debates that others would shy away from.

Ronald Breslow – Maybe at one time—like when he was President of the ACS and untainted by the recent controversy—but not now.

And I have heard nothing but rave reviews of Kroto, Grubbs, Gray, Hershbach, Zare, and Stoddart. I think they are easily among the most respected chemists in academia.

Finally, who is the most influential chemist outside of academia? Only Andrew Liveris comes to mind.

So, that’s probably enough to get me into trouble for today. Now it’s your turn to tell me why I’m wrong…

More discussion: In the Pipeline


56 Responses to “The World’s Most Influential (and Respected) Chemists”

  1. littleghoti Says:

    No mention of Gerhard Ertl? He did win a Nobel!

  2. Timo Says:

    Just for the records – Angela Merkel has been a physicist. So also no significant chemist in politics… ;-)

  3. F'x Says:

    Probably better titled “US’s Most Influential Chemists”, given your list, no?

  4. David Andrews Says:

    I worked for Whitesides as an undergrad at MIT (yes, he was a professor there first!), and he has an extraordinary mind and work ethic. He is willing to branch out of his comfort zone and try radically new ideas, and for that alone I admire him. I do like to joke that I knew him when he couldn’t even spell DNA.

    But what about Watson? He’s alive and well, and still full of beans.

  5. andre Says:

    Most influential chemist (he was trained in chemistry and is a serious scientist) within the US chemical community right now is honestly probably Francis Collins. The one who controls the money has the influence, no? Also he’s a NYT bestselling author and is better known by non-scientists than Hoffmann.

  6. Chemjobber Says:

    Andrew Liveris has a degree in chemical engineering, I believe.

  7. j Says:

    A month ago we could have settled on Margaret Thatcher, but that old witch is gone.

  8. Postdoc Says:

    Paul, was there any more public discourse between Corey and Hoffman? I’m not an organic chemist and that is the first time I’ve heard about the scuffle. Fascinating stuff!

    I do like the list, though I worry for you Paul, I really do.

  9. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Yes, no other chemist comes to mind who has made as many forays into poetry, the arts and humanities and politics. This is apparent in Hoffmann’s latest collection of essays which I reviewed in Nature Chemistry here and which I would strongly recommend.

    http://www.nature.com/nchem/journal/v4/n5/full/nchem.1334.html

  10. Puff the Mutant Dragon Says:

    Alexander Shulgin. In terms of cultural significance both now and in the future — no contest

  11. Paul Says:

    Just to reiterate, the list was not meant to be complete. The chemists listed were just the people that immediately popped into my head as contenders. The beauty of the comments is that everyone can suggest others, and I’m especially interested in hearing thoughts from outside the U.S.

    Also, I really don’t think there are any views expressed here for me to worry about. I’m already on record about Breslow, so that’s nothing new, and I don’t think it’s news that Corey’s extraordinary career was somewhat tarnished by how he dealt with the orbital symmetry work and the Altom suicide.

  12. Jake Y Says:

    This is a very US-centric list. Ertl was mentioned above. J-M Lehn is a candidate, MLH Green–I could go on, but mostly I’m interested in whether you reflected on how many Americans showed up on your list, and whether you think that’s associated with your being in the US, or if it’s objectively the case that American chemists have on balance been disproportionately influential in the last 50 years.

  13. Paul Says:

    I imagine the list contains mostly Americans both (i) because I live here and am most familiar with them and (ii) because they have disproportionately propelled the field forward in the last 50 years.

    Would anyone argue otherwise?

  14. andre Says:

    Also Americans are experts at taking credit for the work of the rest of the world (not just in chemistry either).

  15. Magic Acid Says:

    Nobody has mentioned George Olah yet?? for shame.

  16. Joel Says:

    I think your list is fairly complete, though I think you might want to include the caveat that you worked for Whitesides and Gray.

  17. Postdoc Says:

    @Joel Why? Can anyone argue that those two people don’t deserve to be on that list? Those are two of the most obvious IMHO.

  18. Joel Says:

    @Postdoc- I don’t dispute their importance, just that Paul saying that he has heard “nothing but rave reviews” of Gray has a bit of a different spin when you know up until very recently he was working in his lab.

  19. Cytirps Says:

    If one looks at science, mentorship and educating young chemists, Gilbert Stork should be in the top 5. Although he has not been in the limelight for a while, he is definitely a living icon.

  20. Ucpostdoc Says:

    Jacobsen and Macmillan? Still young guys but pretty influential

  21. F'x Says:

    OK, I’ll just list below a few ideas of my own on this list…

    1. If you go by “most influential chemist”, I think senior editors of top journals (JACS, Angewandte Chemie, …) are maybe not the most visible, but have more influence that meets the eye.

    2. By some measure, people who have launched a whole new field of research in one or two decades can be considered pretty influential… by that measure, you would include people such as Yaghi/Kitagawa, to give only one example.

    3. Non-US influential chemists… I’d say Sanger, Erl, Lehn, Karplus, probably Kroto (Nobel prize + head of RSC), CNR Rao, Zewail… but I cannot manage to include any Chinese or Japanese name to the list, so I must myself be Europe-centric!

  22. excimer's ghost Says:

    This whole discussion basically boils down to “the world’s most influential chemists are unknown to the general public.” Which puts things in a sad perspective.

  23. @SuperScienceGrl Says:

    Agreed Malcolm Green should be up there; that’s real influence in terms of how many great chemists have come from his lab.

    Is Watson a chemist??

  24. Paul Says:

    @excimer’s ghost:

    Yes, and it’s not like we’re even close to making the inroads that biology, physics, medicine, and even mathematics have. Chemistry is a complete non-player in the public sphere. Of course, when you get people like Dan Nocera who actually go out there and try to engage the public on a wide scale, they get blasted by the field for being too self-promotional.

    On a separate note, someone on In the Pipeline mentioned Alfred Bader as an influential industrial chemist, and I think that’s a great call.

  25. Texas Chemist Says:

    Peter Schultz?

  26. excimer's ghost Says:

    Don’t think that this doesn’t happen in other fields. There are whole blogs dedicated to showing how full of shit Brian Greene and his ilk are, for example. And Nocera is a prime example of naively overestimating one’s own work in the guise of public service.

    It’s a fine balance, to be sure- how does one promote one’s field without self-promotion of one’s work in the field? To separate the two entirely would be impossible. I think it takes a great deal of humility and eloquence to achieve this balance. It’s largely lacking in today’s chemists.

  27. yonemoto Says:

    1) Merkel was a physicist but Thatcher was a chemist.
    2) The only chemists historically to come near that “hawking” level of reputation, I think, would have been:

    Pauling
    Langmuir
    Hoffmann (albert)

    and that’s it.

  28. Ian Says:

    Glad to see Landis get a name drop. Sometimes I feel like my PD advisor doesn’t get the credit he deserves/is underappreciated by those of us who aren’t kinetics afficianados. Brilliant chemist and an excellent person to boot.

  29. Matt Says:

    If Richard Smalley were still alive, it wouldn’t even be a question. No one used his prestige and his position in the public and federal world like that man. He was a force of nature.

    Nate Lewis, I think, does a really good job of working with politicians. But he doesn’t have near the personality of Smalley, Gray, Whitesides, etc.

  30. @DrRubidium Says:

    No Shigeru Terabe? I’m one sad analytical chemist…

  31. Matt Says:

    Another tell tale sign of a great chemist: After a seminar, whose question does EVERYONE pay attention to?

  32. Ultrafast Says:

    I think Nocera should be on top of the list with Hoffman. Good at selling his science (even sometimes overselling it!).

  33. ForensicToxGuy Says:

    I still say Shulgin should be top 5 if not on top. He crossed many boundaries – biochem, med chem, pharmacology, psychopharm. He was in academia, industry, government, independent work, etc. He was an author.

    Of course, lists like these are subjective but fun to ponder.

  34. Matt Says:

    Djerassi still has the most important contribution of any modern chemist. Completely overlooked by the Nobel Committee and the general populace!

  35. ajsp Says:

    Peter Golitz and Stuart Cantrill should easily be in the running, as editors of the two best journals.

    Richard Ernst and Marvin Caruthers, in terms of the influence of their achievements, both academic and industrial.

    Lovely chap as he is, once you take away Americans, and people who work/have worked there, I was suprised to see Henry Rzepa as one of the few remaining names. As you’re going for cuddly (as well as a wonderful chemist and mentor) you would be hard pushed to beat Malcolm Green (I don’t think I’m the first to mention him). I’m sure I’m just as European as most people here are American (and probably just as stuck in my own little chemistry ghetto), but I can’t say I know all the names on the list so far, while people like Lehn, Fujita, and Sauvage loom large for me. In terms of influence, I suspect the big name in a small country would be the real influence, but I don’t know who that would be.

    I was interested that you thought the US contribution to chemistry in the last 50 years was disproportionate. Disproportionate to what? If we’re talking proportion cf. wealth and power (or even population), then a lot of countries should come before. Switzerland, anyone? And Sweden certainly manages to get the funding people everywhere going at least once a year….

    And Djerassi. And CNR Rao.

  36. wayland Says:

    a reply from the UK: there are many people on your lists (both) who I have never heard of, and others who I hear a lot of talk about on the internet but haven’t a clue what they have done, and don’t feel motivated to find out.

    There is only one name on the list that stands out for me and that is Kroto. He was all over the television here after winning the nobel in a way that I have seen no other chemistry given public exposure before or since. That episode certainly raised the profile of B Fuller at the same time.

    As to whether exerting that influence to keep chemistry departments open is good is a different debate.

  37. ajsp Says:

    Forgot JJRF da Silva – probably a good example of a big fish in a smaller pond.

    re Kroto: in small countries we always get excited about a sport when we win – see Andy Murray – surely Kroto’s an example of this. I imagine that he wouldn’t even make waves as a figure on the European scale, though, let alone in a forum like this, without waving his Nobel around in front of him. Someone like da Silva seems to have huge influence in his country, and considerable respect outside of it, without that kind of token.

  38. j Says:

    Sadly, the most influential chemists are not in academia. Instead you will find these PhD trained chemists in board rooms and the upper tiers of companies. This list needs to be titled “The World’s Most Influential Chemistry Professor”, otherwise it is just silly.

  39. ThomasGD Says:

    Matthias Beller is definitely an extremely influential chemist. He is responsible for many important advances in the field of catalysis !

  40. Postdoc Says:

    @Supersciencegrl

    To be honest, I had to look up Malcolm Green, and while he does seem to be quite influential, if you look at his advisor’s (Wilkinson) genealogy page, his “brother” F. Albert Cotton had a much larger impact by the measure of professors mentored.

    http://academictree.org/chemistry/tree.php?pid=52080&fontsize=0&pnodecount=4&cnodecount=2

  41. Joe Q. Says:

    I too was surprised by the absence of Djerassi from your list.

  42. Alfie Noakes Says:

    Whilst I love pop star science it would be good to think who are the Whitesides / Nocera’s of tomorrow. We know what the ‘old’ stars are capable of / am doing. What about the crazy youngsters today? Are there any? And yes some US / EU balance would be good. Frankly I think there are a lot of good, sorry outstanding science in the US and it is innovative by conservative measures but where are the real crazy stuff? Who is doing it? Who could be bonkers or a genius….? Any ideas?

  43. Postdoc Says:

    Paul, for those of us too lazy to look it up any chance you could put an asterisk next to the Nobelists on your list?

  44. Rosie Redfield Says:

    Are there any women on the list? (I’m not familiar enough with chemistry to know if any of these people are women.) If not, did anyone even notice that?

  45. bad wolf Says:

    @RR–well, unless i missed it the only one here is Carolyn Bertozzi, and the In the Pipeline responses mention Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher and Abby Doyle. i expect the last to be sarcastic, as she is still a young up-and-coming professor, but honestly if you want a spokesperson for chemistry, i think that’s probably what you should be looking for.

    And yes, i looked for a couple of famous female profs (M Christina White, Melanie Sanford, Laura Keissling, Jacqueline Barton) right away. Still too young? Not “famous” famous? It’s a smaller group but they’re out there. I think the list tilts towards a generation before Keissling and Bertozzi, though.

  46. Paul Says:

    I mentioned Sanford on Twitter as an up-and-coming star. Won’t be long until one of the big schools comes a callin’.

    And, once again, I never even pretended this was a complete list. I literally made it in 3 minutes. But I’m sticking with my conclusion that Hoffmann is tops.

  47. wolfie Says:

    Wolfie is still missing on the list because of S2N2C4H4, but who knows what will come !

    Just imagine the beautiness of the structure….

  48. wolfie Says:

    Why are we not among them ?

    1. Because good Chemistry does not mean only Analytics, but also Synthetics. Bää.

    2. Because Chemistry as a Science these days means “Business”. But even the old Bunsen had to go to his Kurfürst to beg for money. Don’t know whether this was really different, but I thought so.

    3. Because we strive for some cloudy truth that may turn out to exist, or (more likely) not.

    What else ?

  49. cookingwithsolvents Says:

    I know we tend to focus on fine chemicals, pharma, etc. and they are all important. However, if you want to count “impact” as a more global influence then the discussion has largely skipped over the catalysis crowd. Their work influences VERY big companies (energy, polymers, etc):

    e.g.
    Ertl
    Schrock
    Grubbs
    Somorjai
    Marks
    Bercaw
    Iglesia
    Bell
    Norskov
    Jacobson
    Buchwald
    Hartwig

    Companies make multimillion (sometimes billion) dollar decisions based upon what these people do. In that context, this is very influential. They also all have lots of former students in very important places in companies that may not contact their former advisers but were trained by them.

    There are also some very quiet people that I would include on that list, including one Paul knows, but I’ll leave that person to their privacy.

    My personal list would also include:
    Whitesides
    Hoffmann
    Alivisatos
    Nocera
    Mirkin

    Finally, I would put forward the program managers, major review committees, and people that head up major reports (NAS, DOE, NSF, DOD, etc). These chemists and scientist set national policy through their actions and writing. I’ll leave that list as optional homework for the readership. It’s very educational, though.

  50. Chemist Says:

    @cookingwithsolvents

    I think you are spot on with the addition of the catalysis folks. They aren’t always that well known outside of the field of catalysis but Dow, BASF, Dupont, etc. all know what they are up to. My old boss is one of those on your list (that hasn’t been mentioned until now) and Dow makes a few billion dollars of plastics a year using chemistry he developed.

  51. FTC123 Says:

    Paul Knochel?

  52. Nick Says:

    Alfred Bader

  53. wolfie Says:

    To repeat it :

    Would you buy a vacuum cleaner from Mirkin ? At your front door ?

  54. wolfie Says:

    Or, I’m sorry, from whom of the others would you ?

  55. Michal Hocek Says:

    Marvin Caruthers should be at leat on the shortlist – without his automated oligonucleotide synthesis there would be no molecular biology as we know it. Shame he has not received Nobel Prize yet…

  56. Stellenfuerchem Says:

    The Pope was a chemical technician. Does this count? He is pretty influential :).


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