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Organic chemist Albert Eschenmoser dies at age 97

Chemistry innovator helped synthesize vitamin B12 and explored the molecular origins of life

by Bethany Halford
July 19, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 24


A black and white photo of Albert Eschenmoser
Credit: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich
Albert Eschenmoser

Albert Eschenmoser, professor emeritus at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, died on July 14. He was 97.

Eschenmoser was born in Switzerland in 1925 and earned his doctorate from ETH Zurich in 1951 with Leopold Ružička. He joined ETH Zurich’s faculty in 1956 and was appointed a full professor in 1965. He became a part-time member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology faculty at Scripps Research in 1996 and officially retired in 2009.

During a career that spanned six decades, Eschenmoser made significant contributions to the field of organic chemistry. His work led to several named reactions—the Eschenmoser fragmentation, the Eschenmoser sulfide contraction, and the Eschenmoser-Claisen rearrangement—as well Eschenmoser’s salt, a dimethylaminomethylating reagent. He was honored with the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 1986 and the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Chemistry in 2008.

Eschenmoser discovered a way to build corrin rings, culminating inthe total synthesis of vitamin B12 in 1972—a feat he accomplished in collaboration with Harvard University’s Robert Burns Woodward. The complex molecule’s construction is regarded as a landmark.

Scripps’ chemistry professor Phil S. Baran says Eschenmoser had remarkable insight into chemical reactivity. “He could look at a problem. He could think about it for a minute. And then the words that would come out of his mouth would be so profound and so insightful. It was as if you went to the altar of some sort of chemical deity.”

Eschenmoser also studied the chemical origins of life. His work in prebiotic chemistry suggested explanations for the formation of ribose in the backbones of nucleic acids. He also developed artificial nucleic acids with different sugars in their backbones to explore why natural systems use pentoses and not hexoses.

“You look at the world somewhat differently as a chemist,” Eschenmoser said in a 2008 interview with Scripps Research. “You see on and behind the surfaces of molecules, structures, reactions, processes—how they can go well, how they can go wrong, how they relate to diseases.”

“Albert Eschenmoser belongs in the pantheon of the greatest organic chemists of the 20th century,” says Scott E. Denmark, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who earned his PhD in Eschenmoser’s lab at ETH Zurich. “The questions he asked were so profound.”



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