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Chemistry Nobel Laureate Richard F. Heck Dies

Pioneer will be remembered for palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling reaction that bears his name

by Mitch Jacoby
October 12, 2015

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Credit: Evan Krape/U of Delaware
Heck (right) during a 2011 symposium in his honor at the University of Delaware.
20151012lnp1-heckcxd.jpg
Credit: Evan Krape/U of Delaware
Heck (right) during a 2011 symposium in his honor at the University of Delaware.

Chemistry Nobel Laureate Richard F. Heck died Oct. 9 in Manila, the Philippines. He was 84.

Heck shared the 2010 Chemistry Prize with Purdue University’s Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido University, for developing palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling reactions. These reactions are widely used in organic synthesis to make a wide variety of chemicals, including pharmaceuticals and materials.

The cross-coupling chemistry that bears Heck’s name stems from pioneering work he carried out in the late 1960s and early 1970s while he was a research chemist in Wilmington, Delaware, at Hercules Powder—later acquired by Ashland. Unlike today, when the role of transition metal catalysts in mediating organic reactions is well established, the topic was largely unexplored some 50 years ago.

Heck discovered that palladium could catalyze carbon-carbon bond-forming reactions, and in a seminal 1968 paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, he reported how to couple aromatic rings and alkenes (DOI: 10.1021/ja01022a034).

Some organic chemists refer to this cross-coupling reaction as the Mizoroki-Heck reaction, in acknowledgement of the contributions of Tsutomu Mizoroki of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. In the early 1970s, both scientists published studies that detailed ways of improving the reaction conditions described in Heck’s earlier study.

“The breadth of Heck’s contributions to science was truly staggering and extends far beyond the Heck reaction,” says University of Delaware chemistry professor Joseph M. Fox. Heck was a chemistry professor at Delaware from 1971 to 1989. Fox explains that Heck was the first person to characterize a π-allyl metal complex, and among the first to elucidate the mechanism of any transition metal catalyzed process—cobalt-catalyzed hydroformylation. Heck also discovered transfer hydrogenation and codiscovered coupling reactions between aryl halides and alkynes. “Every one of these contributions has had seminal importance,” Fox asserts.

But Heck was more than a great chemist. “He was one of the nicest people I ever met,” says Lee J. Silverberg, who was Heck’s last graduate student. Silverberg, now a chemistry professor at Pennsylvania State University, Schuylkill, adds that Heck was “was always pleasant and easy to talk to. He was a kind and very humble man.”

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