• CORRECTION: This story was updated on July 7, 2015, to correct the date of the ChemDraw event. It took place on June 25, not June 18.
Volume 93 Issue 27 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: July 6, 2015

Happy Birthday, ChemDraw

Department: Editor's Page
Keywords: ChemDraw, Derek Lowe

The following is a guest editorial by Amanda Yarnell, C&EN’s managing editor, editorial.

Like many chemists of a certain age, Derek Lowe remembers the exact moment when he learned about the chemical-structure-drawing program we now call ChemDraw. It was 1986, when Lowe, now a chemist at Vertex and the author of the influential In the Pipeline blog, was still in grad school at Duke University. “I remember the room, and where I was standing in it,” he said at a June 25 event in Cambridge, Mass., marking the program’s 30th anniversary. “The phrase ‘killer app’ applied.”

Before ChemDraw, chemists painstakingly drew structures with stencils like this one developed by Harvard chemist Louis F. Fieser.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Stencil developed by Louis F. Fieser.
Before ChemDraw, chemists painstakingly drew structures with stencils like this one developed by Harvard chemist Louis F. Fieser.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

Before ChemDraw, Lowe and his fellow chemists had to draw chemical structures by hand. Even with the help of the classic plastic template to create ring structures and rub-on letters to insert atoms, drawing structures pre-ChemDraw was painstaking work. Copying them, resizing them, or linking them within a reaction scheme was downright painful. Make a mistake? Good luck to you.

“ChemDraw, on the other hand, was extremely intuitive,” Lowe said. “It freed us up to do real work. And it spread like wildfire.” He soon started using it to write up his dissertation on a Macintosh computer with an early version of Word. Unlike previous students, he didn’t have to rely on a secretary to type up his written thesis or painstakingly draw structures and reactions to insert therein. The speed with which he managed to finish his thesis shocked his Ph.D. adviser and paved his way to graduation.

At an ACS meeting years later, Lowe walked up to Stewart Rubenstein, who codeveloped ChemDraw, and said, “You got me out of grad school.” To which Rubenstein responded: “I get that a lot.”

In fact Rubenstein, who is now retired, had a similar motivation in working on the structure-drawing program while still a graduate student in Harvard University’s chemistry department: “I was going to have to write a thesis that had hundreds of chemical structures in it,” he told C&EN Senior Editor Bethany Halford when she recounted ChemDraw’s roots in C&EN last year (Aug. 18, 2014, page 26).

Eager to avoid that toil, Rubenstein struck up a partnership with Harvard organic chemist David Evans and his wife, Sally, a chemistry teacher who was at the time managing her husband’s lab—and drawing all his structures by hand. The team revealed their program at a Gordon conference in 1985. People immediately lined up to buy it, Evans said. ChemDraw’s popularity convinced Rubenstein to strike out on his own, launching Cambridge Scientific Computing, which eventually became CambridgeSoft, to further develop the drawing program.

Thirty years later, ChemDraw has been downloaded more than a million times. “Today it’s second nature to every organic chemist,” Lowe noted. In fact, many of us—myself included—don’t even remember a time without it.

PerkinElmer, which purchased ChemDraw in 2011, hopes those days won’t end anytime soon. The firm recently introduced a mobile version of the structure-drawing program. Michael Lewis, an associate professor of chemistry at St. Louis University, described how he’s used iPads equipped with ChemDraw to engage organic chemistry students in problem solving during class. PerkinElmer also hopes your lab notebook of the future will be powered by ChemDraw, so the latest reaction you ran will be shared through the cloud in real time with your collaborators around the world.

So here’s to turning 30, ChemDraw. You’ve changed the lives of chemists worldwide.

Amanda Yarnell
Managing editor, editorial


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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