Issue Date: October 27, 2008
Remembering Ernest Eliel
IT IS SAD to know that we have lost Ernest L. Eliel, a scientist who was a beacon of modern stereochemistry and contributed to the revitalization of this key discipline of chemical sciences since the 1950s (C&EN, Sept. 29, page 8). Although the obituary quotes his classic best-seller "Stereochemistry of Carbon Comounds" (published in 1962), recent generations are likely more familiar with "Stereochemistry of Organic Compounds" (1994), coauthored with the late Samuel Wilen, doubtless the most comprehensive and authoritative textbook on stereochemistry, as well as its more concise surrogate "Basic Organic Stereochemistry" (2001) coauthored in addition with Michael P. Doyle.
I invariably recommend that every organic chemist read at least the half of these books dealing with basic concepts, symmetry, nomenclature, and the properties of stereoisomers. I do this because these books constitute a never-ending source of information and inspiration, but they also debunk misinterpretations and myths about chiral substances. This is important because many people entering the hot fields of chirality and asymmetry have received no prior training, and literature errors abound.
Writing with an engaging and didactic style, Eliel was always a superb teacher. To paraphrase him (Chirality 2002, 14, 98), he has become a hidden adviser to many of us and will continue for generations to come.
I AM WRITING in reference to the news of Eliel's death and his never-ending impact on chemical education. While reading his obituary in C&EN, I was reminded of the autobiographical memoirs of David A. Evans (Tetrahedron 1999, 55, 8589), where Evans recalls: "During my junior year, while visiting the college bookstore, I came across Ernest Eliel's just-published monograph, 'Stereochemistry of Carbon Compounds.' I purchased and subsequently read 'Eliel' in its entirety and, having reflected on its impact on me, it has been the most influential chemical text that I have read to date. This experience convinced me that I wanted to learn more about the organic-physical chemical interface, conformational analysis, reaction mechanisms, and reactive intermediates. After some deliberation, I decided to apply to the University of Michigan for graduate school."
Our profession owes much to such great universal teachers of the brightest chemists of the past, present, and future generations. I suggest that to honor the authors of influential textbooks, ACS institute a separate Hall of Fame. Marking their birthdays on an ACS chemistry calendar, along with the title of the book, could be yet another way.
Mukund M. Mehrotra
South San Francisco
I WAS VERY SAD to read of the passing of my good friend Ernest Eliel. I want to add some information about some of his great achievements.
His undergraduate research thesis at the University of Havana was made under a young chemist by the name of George Rosenkrantz, who became one of the fathers of the birth control pill. Eliel's graduation with a doctoral degree from the University of Illinois was granted with fewer than the strictly required number of credit hours because of the research articles he wrote and published during that time.
After he became a professor, he developed a hobby: helping the chemistry departments in Latin American countries. I know that many universities were extremely grateful for his help. The State Department authorized him to travel to Cuba for this purpose many times, and the University of Havana gave him an honorary degree to thank him for his help. Many years ago, I met him on the street in Lima, Peru. He was there to help the university.
ELIEL'S DEATH is sad indeed. In addition to being an outstanding scientist and teacher, Ernest was a terrific human being.
He was extraordinarily selfless in the way in which he helped so many people beyond his own students and coworkers, including me both in the early days of my academic career and later in his role as one of a handful of people whom I would seek out for advice at critical professional junctures. Even when I was a student, he helped me in an indirect way. In my advanced undergraduate and graduate studies, I used a number of specialized textbooks and monographs. The quality of the writing in most of them could at best be described as turgid. Then I encountered Ernest's relatively new and now classic "Stereochemistry of Organic Compounds." The writing was clear and enthusiastic and brought the subject vividly to life.
That experience brought home to me how important good writing is to the advancement of the science, a point I tried to strengthen in myself and to convey to students and others. Happily, I was able to acknowledge my debt to him publicly a few years ago during a birthday celebration at an ACS meeting.
Ernest has left an extraordinary legacy of science, education, and, especially, people. He will be missed.
Great Barrington, Mass.
I WAS DEEPLY SADDENED to learn of the death of Ernest Eliel. As an ACS member, committee member and chairman, councilor, director, president, and chairman of the board, Ernest gave most generously of his time, talents, and energy toward the advancement of ACS. Our society is better and stronger because of his contributions.
I am honored to have been his friend for many years and proud to have served with him as a coworker and supporter.
Rodney N. Hader
Silver Spring, Md.
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