Issue Date: July 4, 2011
Heck Of A Chemist
These days, it’s hard to pull Richard F. Heck away from his orchids, from his life in a rented bungalow in the Philippines. But when you’re a Nobel Laureate, folks tend to want to meet you, to glean some wisdom from your experiences, and to shower you with still more honors.
And so it was on May 26 that Heck, 79, who shared the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in organometallic chemistry, came back to the States with his wife, Socorro, to attend a symposium held in his honor. More than 500 chemists from 20 states and from countries as far away as Japan packed a conference center at the event, held at the University of Delaware, Heck’s academic home from 1971 to 1989. Luminaries in catalysis, including Heck’s fellow laureate, Purdue University’s Ei-ichi Negishi, gave presentations. Via a letter, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell declared the day Richard Heck Day. The day truly belonged to Heck, a self-described introvert who at times seemed flummoxed by all the fuss.
From what little I’d interacted with Heck, this came as no surprise. In May of last year I interviewed him for a story on named reactions, where his namesake chemistry, the Heck reaction (or Mizoroki-Heck reaction, depending on whom you ask) was prominently featured (C&EN, May 17, 2010, page 31). He was funny and self-deprecating in our brief interview, and he seemed settled enough in that flat in Quezon City that I figured I’d never meet him in person. When Delaware chemist Joseph M. Fox told me about the Heck symposium, I jumped at the chance to attend.
I go to a lot of celebrations for great chemists as part of my job at C&EN. But I came away from Heck Day knowing that Dick Heck is more than just a great chemist—he’s a man who never let life’s disappointments dominate him.
“A lot of people know the Heck reaction,” Fox, who emceed the proceedings and spearheaded their organization, said amid the occasional camera flash from the audience and the local press. But Fox reminded the audience that Heck’s résumé goes far beyond the palladium-catalyzed process that bears his name.
Until relatively recently, “organic chemists didn’t do organometallic chemistry,” F. Dean Toste of the University of California, Berkeley, told the crowd. “The Heck work really changed that.”
Witnessing the parade of praise for Heck next to me in the audience sat Take-aki Mitsudo, today recently retired from Japan’s Kyoto University, but in the 1980s a postdoc with Heck at the University of Delaware. He held a binder that contained a printout of a 1984 Journal of Organic Chemistry paper that he’d published with Heck (DOI: 10.1021/jo00183a029). He proudly showed it off to me.
It was a surreal feeling, to be surrounded by people so humbled to be in the presence of someone so humble. Heck granted five-minute interviews to me and to other members of the press. In a windowless white room, sparsely furnished with a chair and two tables, he sat, hands folded, in a wheelchair, and spoke frankly about his career’s ups and downs.
His first job was with the Hercules Powder Co. in Wilmington, Del., where he began his studies on what became the Heck reaction. He was laid off from Hercules (which was bought in 2008 by Ashland) when the company shifted research directions. He then moved to the University of Delaware, and after many productive years there, his funding dried up.
“I think that happens to a lot of people,” Heck told me. “You don’t expect to get funded forever. It depends on what you do and what the climate is for money. I wasn’t too surprised at that happening. It was disappointing, of course.”
Heck kept things close to the vest, Lee J. Silverberg, Heck’s last graduate student, now an assistant professor of chemistry at Pennsylvania State University, Schuylkill, recalled over a salad at lunch.
Citations of Heck’s work and the use of his chemistry didn’t take off until after Heck retired in 1989, as Queen’s University chemist Victor A. Snieckus pointed out with a graph during his talk. It’s easy to wonder what Heck might have accomplished had he stayed in chemistry for another few years. But Heck told me he’s happy with his choice to leave chemistry when he did.
“I was happy with doing research, but I didn’t like the hassle of it,” Heck said. The constant search for money and problems writing proposals were draining, he adds. “I got tired of that and I thought, well, I’m old enough and I think I would enjoy retirement, so I retired instead of fighting the system.”
Heck opted to forgo the traditional keynote address and instead agreed to a question-and-answer period with Delaware’s chemistry and biochemistry department chair, Klaus H. Theopold.
Asked whether he realized the significance of his work as he was discovering new things, whether he ever wondered about the Nobel Prize, Heck said, “I didn’t try for it, but it just happened. I don’t think you work for a Nobel Prize.”
Some chemists do, Theopold retorted to raucous laughter from the audience.
But Richard Heck was never that chemist. And the 500 scientists who at the end of the interview rose to their feet to give Heck a standing ovation knew it. Heck is a person who’s crafted an enjoyable life through both its ups and downs, and that’s something that anyone, not just a chemist, should strive to do.
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