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Hawthorne Is 2009 Priestley Medalist

Boron chemistry pioneer is recognized for lifetime contributions to inorganic chemistry

by Stephen K. Ritter
June 18, 2008

Credit: Courtesy of Fred Hawthorne
Credit: Courtesy of Fred Hawthorne

M. Frederick Hawthorne, director of the International Institute of Nano & Molecular Medicine at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and longtime editor-in-chief of Inorganic Chemistry, will receive the 2009 Priestley Medal. The annual award, which consists of a gold medallion, is the highest honor bestowed by the American Chemical Society and recognizes distinguished service to the field of chemistry.

"I'm tickled to death to receive this recognition," says Hawthorne, 79, who is a pioneer in boron chemistry. "I am very lucky to have been at the right place at the right time to begin work on clarifying the chemistry of boron, one of the most versatile elements."

"The Priestley is a wonderful award to recognize one of the giants of inorganic chemistry," says the University of Rochester's Richard S. Eisenberg, who succeeded Hawthorne as editor-in-chief of Inorganic Chemistry in 2001. It's rare for a chemist to create a field of research and excel in it the way Hawthorne has done with boron, Eisenberg says. On top of that, he did it while spending 32 years guiding Inorganic Chemistry to become a premier international journal, Eisenberg adds.

Hawthorne, a native of Kansas, completed his undergraduate education in 1949 at Pomona College, in Claremont, Calif., and earned a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry in 1953 from the University of California, Los Angeles. He began to synthesize and study polyhedral borane clusters such as B12H122– in 1956 while working at Rohm and Haas. Back then, no one knew much about boron chemistry, Hawthorne says. He assumed that it should be possible to do anything with boron that could already be done with its next-door neighbor, carbon. And the assumption paid off.

During his nearly 60-year career, which includes stints UC Riverside and UCLA, Hawthorne and his colleagues have created a diverse collection of boranes and spin-off compounds, including the carboranes, such as C2B10H12, and the metallacarboranes, such as Ni(C2B9H12)2. Hawthorne has put these compounds to work in applications as varied as medical imaging, drug delivery, neutron-based radiation treatments for cancers and rheumatoid arthritis, catalysis, and nanomachines.

The accomplishment Hawthorne is most excited about is the creation of nontoxic carborane-containing liposomes that selectively target cancer cells for destruction by boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT). But for most of his career, Hawthorne did not have access to a neutron source suitable to test the compounds' efficacy. That shortfall prompted Hawthorne to pull up his roots at UCLA two years ago and move to Missouri, which made a research neutron beam line available to his research team.

"It's been a long road," Hawthorne admits, but he thinks he is finally on the verge of seeing his life's work come to full fruition. Hawthorne expects to start BNCT animal trials in October and human trials within the next five years. He believes carboranes will eventually be ubiquitous in pharmaceuticals.

"Fred has expressed his creativity over and over again in chemistry," says J. Fraser Stoddart, a former UCLA colleague who is now at Northwestern University. "To many scientists the world over, he has become Mr. Inorganic Chemistry, a legend in his own lifetime."


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