Issue Date: January 21, 2013
The Autograph Collector
Tetsuo Nozoe’s hobby started innocently enough. The chemistry professor, of Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, asked for a simple signature in a blank notebook as a remembrance of his visit to West Germany. At the time, July 1953, it’s unlikely that the signer—Clemens Schöpf of the Technical University of Darmstadt—or Nozoe had any inkling that it would be the start of an autograph collection that would grow to 1,179 pages in nine volumes collected over a span of 41 years.
The thousands of structures, sentiments, doodles, and haiku that make up the Nozoe Autograph Books document chemical history in a truly unique fashion. Nobel Laureates and other chemistry luminaries signed the book alongside everyday chemists that few have ever heard of, each leaving behind some remembrance for Nozoe to enjoy.
Nozoe passed away in 1996 at the age of 93, and his autograph books are archived in Sendai. But now, anyone can enjoy these scribblings, thanks to the efforts of University of Richmond chemical historian Jeffrey I. Seeman, Wiley-VCH Vice President and Executive Director Eva E. Wille, and The Chemical Record Managing Editor Brian Johnson. The autograph books are now being published in The Chemical Record and online (tcr.wiley-vch.de/nozoe).
“This collection of autographs is a symbol of the connections people make, whether they’re at scientific meetings or seminars or just visiting with someone. This is an illustration of the importance of personal relationships,” Seeman says. “And at the most fundamental level, these books can be fun. There’s an entertainment value in thumbing through them and looking for people that mean something to you.”
The Chemical Record, which is published by Wiley for the Chemical Society of Japan, began publishing 80-page sections of the autograph books in October 2012. The journal publishes every other month. Its editors have devoted 15 consecutive issues, two of which have already come out, to the autograph-book project. Each section of autographs is also accompanied by an essay.
“My grandfather was extremely gregarious. He loved to meet people and talk to people,” recalls Nozoe’s granddaughter, chemist Hiroko Masamune, vice president of product development at Aires Pharmaceuticals. “He would have been thrilled to see his autograph books published in this way.”
The story of the autograph books begins in 1952 when Nozoe was surprised to receive an invitation to speak at a symposium on natural products as part the 1953 International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry Congress in Stockholm. Nozoe had been studying tropolone, a novel aromatic compound, and its derivatives for decades, but the field of nonbenzenoid aromatics had suddenly become popular in the late 1940s and ’50s. Nozoe caught the eye of the Western chemical community as his publications and reviews were translated into English. He also began to correspond with chemists in the West.
Nozoe accepted the invitation. And he seized the traveling opportunity to visit not just Stockholm but other chemical laboratories in Europe and the U.S. “I decided to contact those professors whom I knew through the exchange of publications and ask them to assist me in setting up an itinerary,” Nozoe recalled in his 1991 autobiography, “Seventy Years in Organic Chemistry,” which was published as part of the American Chemical Society’s Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams series, edited by Seeman.
Among those Nozoe reached out to were Alexander Lord Todd of England’s Cambridge University, Louis F. Fieser of Harvard University, and the aforementioned Schöpf. Before leaving Darmstadt, Nozoe’s first stop on his odyssey, he remembers handing a notebook to Schöpf and asking him “to scribble something in it in memory of our meeting. Those words were the beginning of a souvenir that would become an important memoir of my travels,” he wrote.
“I began my collection with my first trip abroad, thinking these signatures would be a special memento of my travels. When I saw the enthusiastic response of those I asked, and realized how much I enjoyed rereading their comments, I decided to pursue my hobby more vigorously,” Nozoe recalled. “I then began requesting autographs from friends and colleagues wherever and whenever we gathered—both at home and abroad—at meetings, lectures, labs, and social gatherings.”
“I remember signing one of the books and feeling honored to have been asked,” recalls Lawrence T. Scott, a chemistry professor at Boston College. “Nozoe only asked that I write something and sign it and include the date and a picture of my favorite molecule or something else that would be memorable. I thumbed through and admired the drawings of many of my chemistry heroes.”
“Nozoe had so many friends, so this is a compendium of the best chemists of his day rising to the occasion of writing something, not just their name, for a congenial host,” notes Roald Hoffmann, a Cornell University chemistry professor and 1981 Chemistry Nobel Laureate. “It is also a historical marker of Japan’s reintegration into world chemistry after World War II.”
“These books are a wonderful, one-of-a-kind treasure from 20th-century organic chemistry,” Scott adds. “They are truly international in scope and reveal the personal side of many well-known organic chemists. It is great that they will be made publicly available.”
“As a publisher, I always do one unprecedented project per year,” says Wiley’s Wille. “I always try to find time to do one very special thing. This is the biggest I have done so far,” she says of the Nozoe project. Wille was approached by Seeman about publishing the autograph books in 2006. She originally envisioned publishing them as a book but later realized that The Chemical Record would make the perfect home for them. The books, after all, are a record of Nozoe’s travels and interactions, a record of organic chemistry at the time, and probably a record—in the Guinness World Records sense of the word—of chemistry autographs.
One key aspect of the project, Wille points out, is that readers can interact with the online collection. Readers can transcribe entries and identify signatures—perhaps even add a remembrance if they find their own signature. The autograph book website will be open access for at least three years.
“It simply gets addictive. You start with a page, you flip to another page, and then you’re drawn in,” says The Chemical Record’s Johnson. “We really hope the chemical community has fun with it.” ◾
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society