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ACS Award For Distinguished Service In The Advancement Of Inorganic Chemistry

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry

by Stephen K. Ritter
January 12, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 2

Credit: Courtesy of Alan Cowley
Credit: Courtesy of Alan Cowley

Sponsored by Strem Chemicals

Alan H. Cowley, who holds the Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin, is being recognized for his nearly 50 years of contributions to the field of inorganic chemistry. He is a standout not just for his longevity, but also for a history of pioneering studies in main-group-element chemistry, teaching, and serving as an international science diplomat.

When he started out at UT Austin in 1962, the emphasis in main-group chemistry was on high oxidation states and high coordination numbers, Cowley notes. Meanwhile, transition-metal organometallic chemistry started out the other way, with a focus on low oxidation states and low coordination numbers.

“So it seemed to me like a good idea to cross these two things over,” Cowley says. “I went off in the direction of low-oxidation, low-coordination-number main-group chemistry.”

And he has made the most of it. One overarching theme in Cowley’s research over the years has been to seek parallels between the chemistry of carbenes and carbocations and their analogs from periodic groups 13, 14, and 15. His early work involved synthesis of the first three-membered phosphorus ring and the first four-membered arsenic ring. These compounds can be regarded as assemblages of carbenelike fragments.

His initial focus was on phosphinidenes (RP, where P has two lone pairs of electrons), which are electronically similar to carbenes. One advance was the discovery that phosphinidenes can bind to transition metals, forming double and triple phosphorus-to-metal bonds. Continuing on the carbenoid theme, his group discovered similar properties for the related phosphenium (R2P+) and arsenium ions (R2As+).

Cowley’s group also prepared the first compounds with As=As, P=As, P=Sb, and B=O bonds. Another area of interest for Cowley has been synthesizing single-molecule precursors to make group 13–15 semiconductors, such as gallium nitride (GaN), gallium arsenide (GaAs), and indium phosphide (InP).

As a professor, he has kept his hand in the critical job of teaching freshman chemistry. He also is affectionately called “godfather” for helping establish two generations of successful research chemists. In addition, Cowley has organized several Gordon Research Conferences, including the first one on science education in 1992, and served as a member and chair of the board of trustees of the Gordon Research Conferences. Internationally, he has helped facilitate chemistry developments in several countries, in particular in Mexico and in Chile.

A native of Manchester, England, Cowley was educated at the University of Manchester, receiving a Ph.D. degree in inorganic chemistry in 1958. Cowley also has an honorary doctorate from the University of Bordeaux I, and he has been elected a fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the European Academy of Sciences & Arts.

He originally left the U.K. to take a position as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Florida. In 1960, he returned to the U.K. to work briefly at ICI before taking a faculty position at UT Austin. There, Cowley rose to the rank of George W. Watt Centennial Professor of Chemistry. In 1988, he became the Sir Edward Frankland Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Imperial College London, but he returned to UT Austin in 1989.

At age 75, with nearly 500 research papers and numerous awards and other accolades behind him, Cowley simply says that “chemistry is my hobby” and that he has several new projects under way.

Cowley will present his award address before the Division of Inorganic Chemistry.


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