Landmark Achievements | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 18 | p. 35 | Awards
Issue Date: April 30, 2007

Landmark Achievements

Department: ACS News
Fisher stands with his plaque at the University of Chicago.
Credit: Lloyd Degrane
Fisher stands with his plaque at the University of Chicago.
Credit: Lloyd Degrane

Awards program honors institutions where breakthrough chemical discoveries occurred

The ACS Citation for Chemical Breakthrough Award program, sponsored by the Division of the History of Chemistry (HIST), has recently presented plaques to several more institutions at which pioneering discoveries in chemistry occurred.

"Most awards go to individuals," says Jeffrey I. Seeman, founder of the program and past-chair of HIST. "These awards go to the institution, so when students, visitors, and faculty walk down the halls of their universities and see these plaques, they will be reminded of the great science that was done and is still being done."

The program has selected 10 award recipients so far. Events celebrating these awards began last June and will continue through the end of 2007.

HIST presented the first three awards last year. Harvard University's department of chemistry and chemical biology accepted the inaugural plaque in June for Robert Burns Woodward and Roald Hoffmann's classic 1965 paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, which showed that orbital symmetries control the stereochemical course of concerted reactions (C&EN, July 3, 2006, page 49).

The second plaque went to Rockefeller University in November for the late Nobel Laureate Robert Bruce Merrifield's 1963 paper on solid-phase peptide synthesis (C&EN, Dec. 18, 2006, page 61). Several days later, the third plaque went to the University of California, Berkeley, commemorating Gilbert N. Lewis' 1916 article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society titled "The Atom and the Molecule." The paper introduced the concept underlying what became known as Lewis structures.

This year's celebrations are now well under way. On March 26, the University of Chicago's chemistry department accepted an award for the landmark 1953 paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry by Harvey F. Fisher, Eric E. Conn, Birgit Vennesland, and Frank H. Westheimer on the enzymatic transfer of hydrogen and the reaction catalyzed by alcohol dehydrogenase. The paper demonstrated asymmetric induction in an enzymatically catalyzed reaction.

Fisher, now a biochemistry professor at the University of Kansas and director of the Laboratory for Molecular Biochemistry at Kansas City Veterans Administration Hospital, noted that his most significant chemical discovery was the mind of his mentor Westheimer, who was a professor at the University of Chicago at the time of the publication. "He thought up the idea, and that was the important thing," Fisher said of the experiment that led to the paper. "The rest was just a matter of getting the chemistry done."

A frail Westheimer, who went on to become Morris Loeb Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Harvard University, accepted the award in advance during the ceremony for Woodward and Hoffmann at Harvard. Westheimer passed away at his home in Cambridge, Mass., on April 14 (C&EN, April 23, page 9).

On April 12, the University of California, Irvine, accepted a plaque celebrating Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland's 1974 article in Nature titled "Stratospheric Sink for Chlorofluoromethanes: Chlorine-Atom-Catalyzed Destruction of Ozone." Molina was a postdoctoral researcher at UC Irvine under Rowland at the time of the publication.

"Chlorofluoromethanes are being added to the environment in steadily increasing amounts," they wrote in their paper. "Photodissociation of the chlorofluoromethanes in the stratosphere produces significant amounts of chlorine atoms and leads to the destruction of atmospheric ozone."

The article linked chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to the depletion of Earth's ozone layer. The finding was controversial but ultimately led to a worldwide ban on CFCs and ushered in the concept of green chemistry.

The paper helped earn Molina, now a chemistry professor at the University of California, San Diego, and Rowland, now the Donald Bren Research Professor of Chemistry & Earth System Science at UC Irvine, a share of the1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Paul J. Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

During the recent ACS national meeting in Chicago, Seeman presented a plaque to the University of Michigan's department of chemistry honoring Moses Gomberg's 1900 paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society titled "An Instance of Trivalent Carbon: Triphenylmethyl." The paper was the first to propose and establish the existence of a free radical. A second ceremony will take place at the University of Michigan on May 11 as part of the department's celebration of "150 Years of Chemistry at Michigan."

The four remaining awards, honoring Ernest O. Lawrence's invention of the cyclotron; Arnold O. Beckman and Henry Fracker's invention of the commercially successful pH meter; Linus Pauling's breakthrough book, "The Nature of the Chemical Bond"; and Roy J. Plunkett's invention of Teflon, will be presented later this year.

Seeman is soliciting nominations for the next set of Citation for Chemical Breakthrough Awards. Nominations must include a full literature citation and a supporting statement of up to 200 words. E-mail nominations by May 18 to

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