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Nicholas Turro Dies At 74

Esteemed Columbia University professor forged new paths in photochemistry

by Susan J. Ainsworth
December 10, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 50

Credit: Columbia University
Photo of Nicholas J. Turro.
Credit: Columbia University

Nicholas J. Turro, a world leader in the field of organic photochemistry and the William P. Schweitzer Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University, died of pancreatic cancer on Nov. 24. He was 74.

Turro “made deep and lasting contributions to the understanding of reaction pathways of highly energetic molecules,” says Harry B. Gray, a professor of chemistry at California Institute of Technology, who counted Turro as a close friend for nearly 50 years.

He was “a truly spectacular teacher-scholar who made everyone he worked with better,” Gray says. “A scientist who loved people, Nick devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to training students of all ages.”

Turro earned a B.A. in chemistry at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., in 1960 and a Ph.D. in organic photochemistry at Caltech, under George S. Hammond, in 1963. In 1964, he worked at Harvard University as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow with Paul D. Bartlett.

Turro then joined Columbia’s chemistry faculty as an instructor, becoming professor in 1969 and Schweitzer Professor in 1981. He became professor of chemical engineering in 1997 and professor of environmental engineering and materials science in 1998.

In addition to chairing Columbia’s chemistry department from 1981 to 1983, he cochaired the chemical engineering department from 1997 to 2000.

Throughout his career, Turro was recognized for laying the research foundations for modern organic photochemistry, supra­molecular photochemistry, and spin chemistry. He is credited with more than 900 research papers and several influential books.

He received numerous accolades, including the inaugural George S. Hammond Award from the Inter-American Photochemical Society earlier this year. ACS honored him with many awards, including the Arthur C. Cope Award in 2011, the Willard Gibbs Medal of the ACS Chicago Section in 2000, and the Award in Colloid & Surface Chemistry in 1999.

In recognition of his excellence in teaching, Turro received the NSF Director’s Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars in 2002 and ACS’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education in 2004.

He joined ACS in 1960 and was an ACS Fellow. He was a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Turro is survived by his wife of 52 years, Sandra; daughters, Cynthia Harty and Claire Styrbicki; and five grandchildren.

Obituary notices of no more than 300 words may be sent to Susan J. Ainsworth at and should include an educational and professional history.



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