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Frank Westheimer Dies At 95

Chemist remembered for analytical and imaginative approach to organic chemistry

by Linda Wang
April 23, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 17

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Westheimer in June 2006.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Westheimer in June 2006.

Frank H. Westheimer, Morris Loeb Professor of Chemistry, emeritus, at Harvard University, passed away at his home in Cambridge, Mass., on April 14 after a long illness. He was 95.

Westheimer was a key figure in 20th-century chemistry. "His research was deeply influential, enormously instructive to his colleagues, and empowering to their science," says Nobel Laureate and Harvard University professor emeritus E. J. Corey.

Over four decades, Westheimer tackled fundamental scientific challenges, from calculating electrostatic effects in organic chemistry, to inventing molecular mechanics, to determining mechanisms of chromic acid oxidations. His research also led to the demonstration of the need for pseudorotation in the hydrolysis of phosphate esters and to the invention of photoaffinity labeling.

The classic 1953 paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry on the enzymatic transfer of hydrogen and the reaction catalyzed by alcohol dehydrogenase of which he was an author received an ACS Division of the History of Chemistry Citation for Chemical Breakthroughs during a ceremony at the University of Chicago in March. Westheimer accepted the award last June during a ceremony at Harvard (C&EN, July 3, 2006, page 49).

"He had an unusual approach to organic chemistry," says Daniel E. Koshland, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of Westheimer's early graduate students. Koshland says Westheimer was meticulous and imaginative, and he approached his experiments as if he were unlocking a puzzle.

Westheimer received a B.A. from Dartmouth College in 1932 and a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1935. He went to Columbia University as a National Research Fellow in the then-new field of physical organic chemistry and joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1936. He was a visiting professor at Harvard in 1953 and joined the faculty there in 1954.

Westheimer received numerous awards, including the U.S. National Medal of Science, the U.S. National Academy Award in Chemical Sciences, and the Robert A. Welch Foundation Award. ACS awarded Westheimer its highest honor, the Priestley Medal, in 1988.

Westheimer's wife, Jeanne, passed away in 2001. He is survived by their two daughters, Ruth S. Westheimer and Ellen Westheimer.



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