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William von Eggers Doering

by Amanda Yarnell
January 24, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 4

Credit: Amanda Yarnell/C&EN
Credit: Amanda Yarnell/C&EN

William von Eggers Doering, 93, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Harvard University, died on Jan. 3 in Waltham, Mass., after a long battle with prostate cancer.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Doering was the son of two trained musicians who fled Europe soon after the start of World War I. His father’s job as a vital statistician eventually brought his family to Cambridge, Mass., where science in general and chemistry in particular caught Doering’s interest. After high school he entered Harvard, where he earned a B.S. in chemistry in 1938 and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1943.

During World War II, as Allied troops suffered from a shortage of the malaria drug quinine, Doering and fellow Harvard chemist Robert B. Woodward synthesized quinotoxine. The pair believed that this molecule could be converted into quinine with a previously published procedure and, as a result, claimed that their achievement marked the first formal synthesis of the malaria drug. Doering and Woodward’s elegant route to quinotoxine was widely heralded and launched the young chemists’ careers.

Soon after, Doering took a job at Columbia University, where he stayed until he moved to Yale University in 1952. In 1968, Woodward recruited Doering back to Harvard, where Doering remained until his death.

During his long career, Doering made many more fundamental contributions to synthetic and mechanistic organic chemistry (Acc. Chem. Res., DOI: 10.1021/ar800100h). For example, in collaboration with Lawrence H. Knox, Doering managed to synthesize and isolate the tropylium ion, providing experimental evidence for Hückel’s rule and breaking open the field of nonbenzoid aromatics. He also devised a simple route to dichloro- and dibromocarbene and demonstrated the wide synthetic utility of such compounds. His observation that the Cope re­arrangement proceeds in a concerted fashion via a chairlike transition state laid the groundwork for the understanding of stereochemical control in synthetic organic chemistry.

In addition, Doering was a committed chemical educator. In the 1980s, he almost single-handedly devised a chemical education program that opened China’s then-insular chemical community to the West in the wake of the Cultural Revolution (C&EN, Oct. 27, 2008, page 37). Doering’s China-U.S. Chemistry Graduate Program brought nearly 250 Chinese chemistry students to the U.S. and Canada between 1982 and 1986 to pursue Ph.D.s.

Doering was also instrumental in the launching of the Hickrill Chemical Research Foundation, a Katonah, N.Y.-based lab focused on pursuing risky, basic research questions. And he was a longtime advocate for the nonprofit Council for a Livable World, an organization, founded by scientists who worked on the first atomic weapons, that sought to warn the public and Congress of the dangers of nuclear war and encourage nuclear disarmament.

Doering’s many awards include the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, the ACS Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, the James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, and the Welch Award in Chemistry. He was an emeritus member of ACS, having joined in 1940.

Doering is survived by his sons, Christian and Peter, and his daughter, Margaretta ­Doer­ing Volk. A memorial service will be held in the Story Chapel of Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, Mass., at 11 AM on Feb. 5.


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