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Jack Dunitz, crystallography pioneer, dies at 98

Professor remembered as an engaging teacher and brilliant scientist

by Alexandra A. Taylor
September 21, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 35

A photo of Jack Dunitz.
Credit: ETH Zurich
Jack Dunitz

Jack Dunitz, a pioneer in crystallography, died Sept. 12 at age 98. Dunitz was a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, until his retirement in 1990. He was known for using crystal structure analysis to solve chemical mysteries such as reaction pathways and phase transformations in solid-state chemical reactions. Colleagues say he will be remembered for his engaging lectures and his contributions to chemistry, some of which, like the chiral chemistry concept known as the Bürgi–Dunitz angle, are taught to organic chemistry students.

Dunitz was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1923. He earned his bachelor’s degree and PhD from the University of Glasgow, where he first learned about X-ray crystallography. He then served as a research fellow at Oxford University, the California Institute of Technology, the US National Institutes of Health, and the Royal Institution.

In this period, he met and worked alongside many influential scientists, including Dorothy Hodgkin and Linus Pauling. In an autobiographical essay, Dunitz recounted how at Caltech he suggested that Pauling use helix to refer to the structure of DNA instead of spiral, which was common at the time. Pauling responded that the words were synonyms, but that he prefered helix and would use it from then on. “A few years later we had the DNA double helix, not the DNA double spiral,” Dunitz wrote. At Oxford, Dunitz and colleague Leslie Orgel were the first to describe ferrocene’s electronic structure on the basis of its orbital symmetry relationships.

In 1957, Dunitz began his professorship at ETH Zurich. His work spanned many areas, including ion specificity of natural and synthetic ionophores, the structure and reactivity of medium-ring compounds, and the relationships between crystal and chemical systems. Working with Hans-Beat Bürgi, Dunitz derived the Bürgi–Dunitz angle, which was essential for understanding chiral chemical synthesis and the synthesis of enantiomerically pure compounds.

Dunitz’s “pioneering work profoundly influenced the understanding of chemical reaction pathways, weak interactions, and polymorphic compounds, as well as phase transformations and reactions in solids,” ETH Zurich organic chemists Erick M. Carreira and Helma Wennemers write in an email. “He had a decisive influence on the spirit of the Laboratory of Organic Chemistry and the ETH, contributing immeasurably to the international reputation of his home institution and European science.”

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Barbara; his daughters, Marguerite and Julia; and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.



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