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Herbert C. Brown Dead at Age 92

Nobel Laureate will be remembered for pioneering work in boron chemistry

by Mitch Jacoby
January 3, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 1


Herbert C. Brown, the R. B. Wetherill Research Professor Emeritus of chemistry at Purdue University, died on Dec. 19 at the age of 92. Brown will long be remembered for his pioneering work in boron chemistry and for the 1979 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Brown was born in London in 1912 and moved to the U.S. when he was two years old. He began high school at age 12 but dropped out two years later to run the family's hardware store when his father died, according to an interview in "Candid Science" by Istvn Hargittai (World Scientific Publishing, 2000).

"I'm afraid I neglected the business and spent a lot of time reading books," Brown recalled for Hargittai. "I enjoyed studying." So Brown's mother arranged for the teenager to return to school and work in the store in the afternoons.

Later, he studied chemistry at the University of Chicago and completed a Ph.D. degree there in 1938. From 1943 to 1947, Brown held faculty positions at Wayne State University, Detroit, and then moved to Purdue, where he was appointed professor of chemistry.

Adding B–H to unsaturated organic molecules such as alkenes leads to compounds that can be converted to many other classes of molecules.
Adding B–H to unsaturated organic molecules such as alkenes leads to compounds that can be converted to many other classes of molecules.

While at the University of Chicago, Brown devised a method for preparing sodium borohydride, NaBH4. This compound was used to generate hydrogen gas for weather balloons during World War II and is used nowadays in some fuel-cell applications.

In 1956, while at Purdue, Brown discovered that unsaturated organic molecules can be converted readily to organoboranes through hydroboration reactions, in which boron and hydrogen add to multiple bonds. For example, the reaction of simple alkenes with diborane (B2H6) yields trialkylboranes. These compounds can be oxidized to form alcohols. Similarly, hydroboration of alkynes leads to vinylboranes, which can be converted to several classes of compounds including aldehydes, ketones, and alkenes. Brown is also known for investigating chemical effects of steric strain and measuring the strain quantitatively.

Brown is survived by his son, Charles A. Brown, and by his wife, Sarah Baylen, whom he credits with drawing his attention to boron chemistry. Brown related in his Nobel Prize lecture that, when he completed his bachelor's degree in 1936, his soon-to-be wife presented him with a book on the hydrides of boron and silicon as a graduation gift.

"This was the time of the Depression, and none of us had much money," he recalled. "It appears that she selected as her gift the most economical chemistry book ($2.06) available in the University of Chicago bookstore. Such are the developments that can shape a career."



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