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Harry Gray Wins Welch Award

Caltech professor recognized for achievement in basic research

by Sophie L. Rovner
May 25, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 21

Credit: Courtesy of Welch Foundation
Credit: Courtesy of Welch Foundation

In recognition of his work in inorganic chemistry and renewable fuels, Harry B. Gray, a chemistry professor and founding director of Beckman Institute at California Institute of Technology, has won the 2009 Welch Award in Chemistry. The Welch Foundation, based in Houston, grants the $300,000 award annually to honor lifetime achievement in basic research in chemistry.

Gray is "a gifted researcher, teacher, and statesman for chemistry," foundation Chairman Dennis Hendrix says. "He has touched almost every aspect of inorganic chemistry in his 45-year career and helped cofound the fields of biological inorganic chemistry and inorganic photochemistry," which subsumes subjects such as artificial photosynthesis.

"At a time of life when many are thinking about retirement, Dr. Gray continues to lead the field into new science and new discoveries that will make a major impact," adds James L. Kinsey, chairman of the foundation's scientific advisory board. "In addition to his passion for renewable fuels, he is studying aspects of protein folding that may have implications for Parkinson's disease. He continues to bring imagination and enthusiasm to the pursuit of new knowledge in chemistry."

Born in 1935, Gray earned a B.S. degree in chemistry in 1957 from Western Kentucky College and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Northwestern University in 1960. After postdoctoral work at the University of Copenhagen, he joined the chemistry faculty at Columbia University before moving to Caltech in 1966.

Since then, Gray has devised the ligand field theory of inorganic electronic structures; applied bonding models he developed for inorganic compounds to biological processes; studied electron transfer, respiration, and photosynthesis; and explored renewable energy. He also published 17 books, including several textbooks that have become classics.

"All my work and training in the fundamentals of chemistry—building knowledge and learning techniques over the past 40-plus years—have prepared me for the research I'm doing now that will directly benefit mankind," Gray says. "Chemistry is a science that takes decades to master before you can begin making the big contributions, and that's why the Welch Award, given for lifetime achievement, is particularly gratifying."



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