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Molecular Electronics

John D. Roberts dies at age 98

Caltech chemistry professor brought NMR to organic chemistry

by Linda Wang
October 31, 2016

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
John D. Roberts
Photo of a man.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
John D. Roberts

John D. “Jack” Roberts, a pioneer in physical organic chemistry and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, died on Oct. 29 at the age of 98. Roberts was Institute Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, at California Institute of Technology.

Roberts earned an A.B. degree in 1941 and a Ph.D. in 1944, from the University of California, Los Angeles. Prior to joining Caltech in 1953, Roberts held positions at the University of California, Los Angeles; Harvard University; and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At Caltech, Roberts served as chairman of the Division of Chemistry & Chemical Engineering, and as vice president, provost, and dean of the faculty.

“Jack Roberts was an iconic figure. He was an extraordinary chemist and educator. He taught chemists the power of NMR and was a pioneer in the development of physical organic chemistry,” says Jacqueline Barton, a chemistry professor at Caltech. “For me personally, I first learned both organic chemistry and molecular orbital theory through his timely books. Later, I got to know Jack, a strong tall man, who was really a teddy bear with a knowing smile. He cared about excellence and about teaching the next generations. He had a tremendous commitment to bringing undergraduates into the research lab. He also mentored many of the Caltech faculty with respect to giving back to the Institute and more generally to the chemistry community.”

His pioneering research is considered to have helped shape the development of modern physical organic chemistry. For example, he developed many of the important techniques of modern physical organic chemistry in areas such as isotope position rearrangements, conformational analysis, and study of enzymes by use of NMR techniques. In fact, Roberts was one of the first investigators to recognize the potential of NMR in chemical structural and mechanistic studies.

“His was a life full of accomplishment on many fronts, through his seminal research in physical organic chemistry; basic text books, including gems such as molecular orbital theory and nuclear magnetic resonance; and his guidance and mentoring of generations of students and junior colleagues,” says Marjorie Caserio, who was a postdoc of Roberts’ and coauthored several books with him. “As one of his students, I acknowledge with deep gratitude his support and encouragement that was so influential in my own career.”

“Jack Roberts was one of the towering giants of chemistry—literally and figuratively. His contributions in basic research and in inspiring generations of students are incomparable. Even well into his 90s, Jack had summer students carrying out research in his laboratory,” says Madeleine Jacobs, former CEO of ACS and a close friend of Roberts. “His organic chemistry textbook, which everyone abbreviated as ‘Roberts and Caserio,’ was instrumental in the lives of many organic chemists, including myself.”

Roberts received numerous awards, including ACS’s Priestley Medal in 1987 and the National Medal of Science in 1990.

Chemists share their reflections about Jack Roberts:


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