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Arthur C. Cope Scholar: Martin F. Semmelhack

by Carmen Drahl
March 4, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 9

Credit: C. Kraml
Martin F. Semmelhack
Credit: C. Kraml

Every so often, the chemistry stockroom attendant at Appleton, Wis.’s Lawrence College would get a visit from 14-year-old Martin F. Semmelhack. “Can I have some concentrated sulfuric acid?” the boy would ask. The attendant would insist on having written permission from Semmelhack’s mother before handing over the good stuff.

Those were different times, 71-year-old Semmelhack says with a laugh. But chemists who rely on transition metals’ reactivity have that stockroom attendant to thank for inspiring one of their field’s pioneers. Today Semmelhack, who goes by Marty, is a professor at Princeton University. He is “an elder statesman” of organometallic chemistry, says his department chair, David W. C. MacMillan. “He has a true passion for pushing chemical synthesis into conceptually novel areas.”

“The theme in all of our work is looking for new reactivity, and when I got started everything was pretty new,” Semmelhack says. He is best known for using chromium complexes to activate benzene rings and applying that method to make medicinally relevant molecules from nature. His group also formed carbon-carbon bonds with nickel chemistry, explored iron-diene complexes’ reactivity, and studied palladium-catalyzed transformations, among other subjects. In recent years he’s applied that understanding of reactivity to biology, collaborating with Princeton molecular biologist Bonnie L. Bassler to make molecules that interfere with bacterial communication.

Many of today’s organometallic chemistry advances wouldn’t be possible without the foundation Semmelhack laid, says Stephen L. Buchwald, a professor of chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Semmelhack is someone who was ahead of his time.”

Semmelhack conducted his first experiments with his stockroom finds. He filled his parents’ basement with them, along with classical labware like retorts and alcohol lamps. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he worked as an undergraduate with photochemistry titan Howard Zimmerman, and he found a mentor and friend in a young professor, David M. Lemal.

Lemal had been a student of R. B. Woodward, so Semmelhack asked Lemal for advice about earning a Ph.D. under the legendary professor. “Actually,” Semmelhack remembers Lemal saying, “there’s this young guy at Harvard whose work looks really exciting,” E. J. Corey. Semmelhack took Lemal’s advice, joining a cluster of Corey students who studied transition metals. After a postdoc with W. S. Johnson at Stanford University, Semmelhack began his independent career at Cornell University. He moved to his current home at Princeton 10 years later.

There he helped nurture another generation of chemists. “My choice of becoming a chemistry major, instead of an electrical engineer, pivoted on organic chemistry taught by Semmelhack,” says Prince­ton alum John F. Hartwig, today a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley. On top of his cutting-edge research, “he was an inspiring teacher.”

Semmelhack has served on editorial boards for numerous organic chemistry journals. He served on the executive committee of the ACS Division of Organic Chemistry and as chair of the division. He spent 1988–90 as consulting director of chemistry at the American Cyanamid Medical Research Division. In his spare time, Semmelhack enjoys a good game of tennis.


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