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Let Them Rest In Peace

April 4, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 14

C &EN’s obituary of William von Eggers Doering stated that in 1944 “Doering and fellow Harvard chemist Robert B. Woodward synthesized quinotoxine. The pair believed that this molecule could be converted into quinine with [Paul Rabe and Karl Kindler’s] published procedure and, as a result, claimed that their achievement marked the first formal synthesis of [quinine]” (C&EN, Jan. 24, page 46) [emphasis mine].

While this statement is not factually incorrect, it is ambiguous: The statement is true whether or not Woodward and Doering synthesized quinine. Ironically, the obituary actually leads the reader away from the scientific facts. As demonstrated by my historical research (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2007, 46, 1378) and Aaron Smith and Bob Williams’ experimental work (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2008, 47, 1736), the Woodward-Doering/Rabe-Kindler total synthesis of quinine is a valid contribution to the scientific literature.

Indeed, C&EN previously afforded full coverage of this research in two stories and an editorial by its editor-in-chief (C&EN, Feb. 4, 2008, page 8, and Feb. 26, 2007, pages 47 and 3). C&EN has thus previously provided its authoritative acceptance of Woodward and Doering’s claim and belief to be a legitimate scientific achievement. As far as the first total synthesis of quinine is concerned, let Woodward, Doering, Rabe, and Kindler rest in their deserved peace.

Jeffrey I. Seeman
Richmond, Va.


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