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Alfred Bader Honored at Queen's University

Celebration commemorates 80th birthday and explores close relationship with the school

June 14, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 24

Delighted, Bader shows off an upcoming cover of the Canadian Journal of Chemistry and a bound book of birthday wishes from luminaries in chemistry.
Delighted, Bader shows off an upcoming cover of the Canadian Journal of Chemistry and a bound book of birthday wishes from luminaries in chemistry.

The long story of chemist, philanthropist, and art collector Alfred R. Bader's life has intersected many times with the tragedies and triumphs of the 20th century. There have been twists and turns, and he remembers all the dates associated with them. Festivities held at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, on May 12 have made that date a happier one for Bader.

Born in Vienna of Jewish parents, Bader was sent to England in 1938 at the age of 14, one of more than 10,000 children who were saved from the Nazi genocide. A year later, Bader was deported from England and sent to Canada. On May 12, 1940, he was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Canada as an enemy alien. On May 12, 2004, he was honored by Queen's University--his alma mater--the university that Bader says "saved" him.

The celebration held at Queen's last month was officially a commemoration of Bader's 80th birthday (which was actually April 28), but it encompassed much more. There were birthday cards and gifts and a cake, of course, and Bader and his wife, Isabel, were obviously delighted with the festivities. The university even renamed Queen's Crescent--the street on which the chemistry department building sits--Bader Lane.

The festivities also provided an opportunity to explore the close and precious relationship that Bader has had with Queen's University for more than 60 years. Bader told an audience of chemistry faculty, graduate students, and summer undergraduate students, "Queen's saved me a year of my life, and I have been thanking them ever since."

He explained that a year and a half after he was imprisoned in Canada, he was released from custody and was "frantic to get into college." He was a superior student and had excellent qualifications, so he applied to the University of Toronto and McGill University. Bader recalled that these universities were not willing to accept him because they had already enrolled their quota of Jews, who he says were considered undesirable students.

Queen's University, however, accepted Bader as a student with open arms and treated him well, awarding him bachelor's degrees in 1945 in engineering chemistry and in 1946 in history and then a master's degree in chemistry in 1947. Bader went on to receive M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry from Harvard University in 1949 and 1950, respectively.

Bader is well known in chemistry as the one of the founders of Aldrich Chemical Co., now Sigma-Aldrich--the world's largest supplier of research chemicals. Bader was primarily responsible for turning this small start-up company into a billion-dollar enterprise. And this success has made Bader a wealthy man, who is, for his part, a generous man.?

Bader is equally well known in the art world as a preeminent collector--particularly of 17th-century Dutch paintings. He is also a philanthropist whose gifts have benefited many institutions, notably those in the areas of chemistry, education, and Jewish interests.

Queen's University in particular has benefitted a great deal from Bader's generosity, which has included many gifts, from endowed professorships to priceless paintings to a castle in England. On this visit, he presented the university's department of art and the Agnes Etherington Art Center with a painting: "Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull" by Michael Sweerts (1618-64). The art department, in turn, held a standing-room-only discussion on three paintings from the center's Bader Collection.

Alfred and Isabel Bader donated this painting, "Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull," by Michael Sweerts (1618–64), to Queen's University.
Alfred and Isabel Bader donated this painting, "Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull," by Michael Sweerts (1618–64), to Queen's University.

A chemistry symposium in Bader's honor was organized by Queen's chemistry department head David M. Wardlaw and Victor Snieckus, the Alfred Bader Chair in Organic Chemistry. Speakers at the symposium were Nobel Laureate K. Barry Sharpless of Scripps Research Institute and Gilbert Stork, emeritus professor of chemistry at Columbia University.

At the symposium, Sharpless praised chemical entrepreneur Bader as "the enabler of organic chemists across the board." He then proceeded to give an interesting lecture on, among other things, water. "I am increasingly excited by water," Sharpless said, noting that "life is just one of the games water can play."

Sharpless argued that humans are so enchanted by complexity that they frequently don't look to simple solutions to synthetic problems. He urged chemists to appreciate simplicity--for example, water as a solvent in synthesis. He then gave a few examples of syntheses that work exceedingly well in aqueous solution.

In his remarks, Stork lovingly detailed various approaches to the total synthesis of morphine.

Stork finds the structure of the molecule enticing, and he is not alone. He said there have been 22 total syntheses of morphine in the chemical literature since 1952. During a question-and-answer session after the talks, Bader's eyes lit up as he asked his longtime friend Stork why he was so interested in this particular synthesis--"it had been done so many times before." Stork noted that the molecule had been imprinted on his subconscious for more than 50 years. "You may as well ask, 'Why paint a picture of a mother and child?'" he added.

After the talks, Snieckus presented Bader with two keepsakes. One was a bound book with individual birthday greetings from nearly 100 members of the chemistry community. He also gave Bader a mock-up of an upcoming cover of an issue of the Canadian Journal of Chemistry that will honor Bader with a special issue in 2005.

Bader was joyful, telling the audience how happy these events had made him, and thanking everyone at Queen's. He then introduced his wife to the audience, thanking her, his partner in all endeavors, to great applause.



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