This post originally appeared on www.paulbracher.com
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