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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
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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Dr. Richard H. Fish, LBNL/UCB (November 2, 2016 3:23 PM)
I remember Jack Roberts at CalTech seminars I attended from 1965-1969, where he basically provided many important speakers of the time with critiques of something that they said, which was wrong. The following discussions were also a seminar within a seminar. This was also similar to the Winstein-Cram seminars at UCLA, where the first question was followed by 30 minutes of discussion, and the prominent speaker could only continue after they were satisfied with the answer. It is a sad day when we hear that a giant in Chemistry has passed, but fortunate to have been influenced by their intelligence and creativity, as well as their publications.
David Schuster (November 2, 2016 3:23 PM)
Even at his advanced age, it is a shock to learn of Jack Roberts' death. He was literally and figuratively one of the giants of organic chemistry. His contributions to the use of NMR in organic chemistry were enormous, something for which he should have received the Nobel Prize. I well remember using the very temperamental 40 MHz spectrometer in the late 1950's, when each spectrum was the first of its kind, sometimes readily interpretable but often not so. His role in the development of mechanistic organic chemistry in its early days was also enormous, leading to many insights into just how organic reactions proceeded., and changing how we talked about organic reactions. His basic organic textbook with Marjorie Caserio, "Roberts and Caserio", had a huge impact on the field, even though it was considered too demanding and was not as widely adopted as some of its successors. He was awesome at the poker table, as he relished pulling in the chips with his huge hands when he won, which was often. We who were his students, which went way beyond those who actually worked in his lab, will always be deeply indebted to him for his guidance, his intellect, his insight and his humanity. We have lost a very great man.
Robert K. Lantz, Ph.D. (November 2, 2016 5:31 PM)
My first organic professor (Peter A. S. Smith) had us use Roberts and Caserio in about 1965. This brought organic to life. We (University of Michigan students) did not find it to be overly taxing. We found it to be enlightening and fun.
Jeff Richardson (November 2, 2016 3:43 PM)
Jack Roberts was a dedicated teacher who really cared about his students. He broke his leg skiing in the latter 1960's, but quickly returned to continue teaching Chem 41 with his leg propped up, using a marking pen with a Vu-graph projector & blank transparencies, & stayed as long as necessary after class to answer our fumbling questions.
M.G. Finn (November 2, 2016 3:51 PM)
I imagine that many of Jack's students, like me, will hear the unique tenor of his voice in their heads for the rest of our lives. And, hopefully, we will pass along some of his wisdom to our own students, even if we can't do so in quite the same tone, or with the same incisiveness. Condolences to his family, who must know that a far larger family of chemists are both saddened that this voice has been stilled, and smiling as we remember it, and him, with the utmost gratitude.
Melissa (November 2, 2016 4:07 PM)
Although I don't know him, I pay my respects to a great man who contributed a tremendous amount to the world. Rest In Peace sir.
Bakhtiar Khodavirdilo (November 2, 2016 4:24 PM)
I well remember using the very temperamental 40 MHz spectrometer in the late 1950's, when each spectrum was the first of its kind, sometimes readily interpretable but often not so. His role in the development of mechanistic organic chemistry in its early days was also enormous, leading to many insights into just how organic reactions proceeded., and changing how we talked about organic reactions.
Rudolf Duthaler (November 2, 2016 5:04 PM)
I have only the very best memories of John D. Roberts. First as student at the ETH Zürich, where Albert Eschenmoser was using THE Roberts - Caserio as textbook to his organic chemistry lectures, then as his postdoctoral fellow from 1975 to 1977. This was a very important and fruitfull experience for me, a jump from synthetic chemistry into hightech NMR and physical organic chemistry. Most impressive was his unparalleled liberality in leading. One felt completely free to do whatever seemed interesting, and still his almost non felt influence was amazingly there and success was kind of natural. Well Jack - I never dared to call you so before - but now I'm deeply touched by your death. I'm happy about your long life, your big family, and I will miss your yearly card very much. Your impressive contribution to the discipline of chemistry will never be forgotten.
John A. Soderquist (November 2, 2016 5:29 PM)
I was fortunate to meet with Professor Jack Roberts in 2012 during my visit to Caltech to present a seminar on our organoborane research. I have a precious photograph of the two of us at the Athenaeum. He was in my audience and after my seminar came up to me and told me that he had enjoyed my talk enjoyed it a lot. I have great respect for his role in developing cutting edge science and people at Caltech and elsewhere. May he rest in peace.
Allen A. Smith (November 2, 2016 6:03 PM)
What I remember most was his little book "Notes on Molecular Orbital Calculations," which formed a large part of the course I took in physical organic chemistry.
Robert Lichter (November 2, 2016 6:51 PM)
In that regard, Jack was the author of what is probably the world's shortest book with the world's longest title: An Introduction to the Analysis of Spin-Spin Splitting in High-Resolution Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectra, which appeared in the same year, 1961. 105 pages not including title pages and indices!
Gerard J. Martin (November 3, 2016 1:51 PM)
This book, small by its number of pages but huge by its ability in helping young chemists to understand and mastering the quantum mechanics computation of the spin-spin coupling constants was a revelation for me! In 1962, with my wife Maryvonne we were deeply desappointed not to be able to engage a post-doc work with J.D. Roberts for bureaucratic reasons.
However, several years later we were very happy to meet him and discuss at a ACS Conference.
Ashraf Khan, Ph.D. (November 2, 2016 6:06 PM)
I was fortunate to learn the phenomenal organic chemistry text book "Roberts & Casiero", though not in its original English, but in the translated Russian version at the Moscow State University, Moscow, USSR,where I was a non-Russian graduate student in the 80s. At the Moscow State,and in the USSR, in general, although it may have been discourgaed to learn the 'Capitalist Chemistry' texts, the Soviet authority couldn't deprive the students from learning the excellent text "Roberts & Casiero" for a number of reasons. In retrospect,it was a fascinating organic chemsitry text, and I learnt quite a bit through its much superior substances, excellent elucidation of reaction mechanisms, the easy style and the lack of inadequate explanation that often plagued the 'Socialist Chemistry' texts.
Robert Lichter (November 2, 2016 6:39 PM)
I echo the comments above and in the article. Jack was my postdoc advisor from 1968 to 1970. Although he had a profound influence on me during that time, his impact went further. Belying his apparent gruff exterior, Jack was a highly caring person, very much concerned about the welfare and success of those around him. This was reflected in the way he ran his research group. Jack guided with a light hand, essentially trusting his students to find their own ways--collaboratively, to be sure--with the freedom to make mistakes, of which I made many during that time. That it's OK to make mistakes as part of learning is a message that I have tried to convey in my own career, whether in the lab, classroom, office, or elsewhere. Whether I succeeded, of course, may be debatable.

Jack was also a senior advisor to The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation during much of my time as executive director and for many years before. He played key roles in guiding the Foundation that went beyond reviewing proposals, and his directness in calling out what he considered to be questionable judgements or viewpoints often led to energetic discussions that were illuminating in ways that would not have happened otherwise.

Jack’s critical approach was always issue oriented, never personal. One could always count on the room lighting up when his huge grin spread across his face and his eyes literally twinkled. His humanity was unparalleled. We will all miss him.
Scot D Abbott, Ph.D (November 2, 2016 6:45 PM)
Roberts and Caserio was my guiding light into Organic chemistry, and it inspired me on my way to more than (so far) a 50 year career in analytical- and physical' organic chemistry. We used the text when I was in grad school in the late '60's. A fantastic contribution and contributor to all of us.
Yue Zhu (November 2, 2016 6:46 PM)
I was very fortunate to be one of his many summer undergraduates doing NMR research back in 2010. I still remember clearly the moment he drew the dihedral angles of succinic acid on a piece of paper and explained the Karplus equation to me. That summer has somewhat changed my life, when I look back today. Thank you, Dr. John Roberts.
Richard Jones (November 2, 2016 6:51 PM)
Jack Roberts was a force on the third floor of Crellin Laboratory when I was there in the early seventies. The frontispiece of his text on organic chemisty had potential targets of synthesis, and I was lucky enough to make one of them. He thanked me for it and said he never expected to see it. I remember pulling his leg when we would walk down the hall. He loved sailing almost as much as he loved chemistry. He was also partially deaf, particularly when we were talking fast. As we passed his always open door, I would say the word "sailing" no matter what we were actually talking about. He would get up and stick his head into the hall and say "Sailing?" It never failed. I will always remember him.
Albert Tianxiang Liu (November 2, 2016 7:12 PM)
161030 In memoriam of J. D. R.

Dr. Roberts took me in as a SURF student after my sophomore year, and introduced me to the world of scientific research. I can honestly say without any exaggeration that I owe ALL of my academic achievements thus far and beyond to Dr. John D. Roberts. Without him, I would have never even begun to discover my interest towards the physical sciences; without him, I would have never been able to take a peek at the chemistry world from a giant’s perspective; without him, I would have never considered coming to Caltech to study chemical engineering, let alone having the opportunity to enjoy so many wonderful experiences that have since followed.

Dr. Roberts was a living history of chemistry and has impacted so many people around him in so many different ways. Not only was him a remarkable mentor, Dr. Roberts was also like a grandpa to me. It is as if it was yesterday that I stand in front of him for the very first time, trying to fight off the nerves in my voice whilst introducing my SURF project to the whole research group; that I see him nodding off at Domingo’s performance on Thais at the LA Opera; and that I listen to him reminiscing about dinner conversations with Oppenheimer himself on the Manhattan Project under the golden dome of the Caltech Athenaeum. He has taught me how to think big and to start little. When I close my eyes, I can still vividly see his strong, cursive fonts that had marked all over every single version of my manuscript. Dr. Roberts has taught me what it means to be humble and what it means to keep an open mind, especially coming from a man of his statue - sometimes it is the very people that no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.

There has not been a day passed that I have not felt blessed to have once met the great John D. Roberts. He has defined my academic path, fostered my passion towards understanding the unknowns, and reshaped the very core of my personality. He was truly an illuminator who brought the light the world needed to understand organic chemistry on a structural and mechanistic level, a light we as his pupils shall take forth to keep his legacy alive for many generations to come.

With all my heart and most sincere condolences,

Albert Tianxiang Liu
Ernest R. Gilmont (November 2, 2016 7:54 PM)
One of my regrets from Graduate School at MIT was that Jack Roberts moved to Caltech before I had the opportunity to take more than his basic course on NMR.
Vyacheslav V. Samoshin (November 2, 2016 9:40 PM)
"Roberts and Caserio" (exactly this way, although in Russian translation) was my favorite supplementary reading in high school in late 1960s and then in Moscow State University in Soviet Union. One of the major starting points of my love for organic chemistry.
John Simpson (November 2, 2016 11:28 PM)
I did not have the privilege of meeting Professor Roberts in person, but I am grateful to his books and papers on NMR, organic chemistry and quantum chemistry. It is really sad to learn that three NMR pioneers and giants Erwin Hahn, Norman Ramsey and John Roberts passed away this year. May all these heros rest in peace.
Jack Firkins (November 3, 2016 1:51 PM)
Truly great to have Dr. Roberts as my Ph.D. advisor 1965-1969, and visit with him every few years since. As a grad student, I would sometimes seek his advice on a chemistry problem. But he never gave his opinion or guided me to a solution. He would only share some general thoughts about how I might figure it out on my own. I would, and am better for it. Jack Roberts will be sorely missed by so many of us.
Mudassir Salihu (November 3, 2016 2:24 PM)
Painful exit! RIP Prof. My sincere condolence to families and love ones.
Mel Sahyun (November 3, 2016 3:25 PM)
I was looking forward to seeing Jack again later this month when Ken Houk receives the Seaborg Medal at UCLA. Jack Roberts attended these events regularly, and was as much a part of the UCLA chemistry community as the CalTech community. I had first met Jack in the 60s when I was a post-doc at CalTech after finishing my Ph.D. at UCLA. Later in my career I had the occasion to work in quantum chemistry and always remembered my first exposure to MO theory from Jack Roberts' book.
Gheorghe D. Mateescu (November 3, 2016 4:21 PM)
Professor J. D. Roberts,
I will never forget your kind words!
Rest in Peace!
G. D. Mateescu, CWRU
Dr Derry L Fishel (November 3, 2016 5:12 PM)
My introduction to Jack Robert's pioneering research in physical organic chemistry was first as a grad student in Harold Shecter's Physical/Organic Course at Ohio State Univ. then as one of Harold's doctoral student's in the mid 1950's. I credit that as a prime influence directing my own interest and career as a physical organic chemist the rest of my professional life.
William J. Brittain (November 3, 2016 5:47 PM)
I was one of the last students to work on non-classical ions and it has taken years to fully appreciate the intellectual leaps Roberts made. He was a giant to me, made me love physical organic chemistry, and one person for whom I never dropped the Dr. salutation.
Aharon Loewenstein (November 4, 2016 3:52 AM)
I was very saddaned to learn that Jack is no longer with us. The post-doc year that I spent in his lab (1958-59) was a great experience for me, due to his kind hospitality and inspiring personality.
Mohamed Alkordi (November 5, 2016 4:57 AM)
Jack was my mentor in one of the undergraduate summer research fellowships (SURFs) at Caltech in 2002. I owe him a great debt of gratitude, as I consider that this opportunity that he offered me opened my career path into science and academia. At his 90s, he would still devote a time for one-on-one with his students, me included, and he would read my lab report in details with much care, I still remembers how he used to proof-read my writing and instruct me on the best way of plotting my figures...etc.
My first paper was dedicated to him, and the next one should be, Jack we will miss you surely and I hope we can carry on your spirit and dedication.
Harald Günther (November 5, 2016 7:17 AM)
With John D. Roberts a giant in science and a pioneer in many fields of organic
chemistry passed away. I had my first contact with his research when I worked on benzyne(dehydrobenzol) - a short-lived intermediate in some aromatic nucleophilic substitutions- during my Ph.D. thesis in Georg Wittig´s laboratory at the University of Heidelbergin the late fifties. In 1956 Roberts et al. had shown convincingly the existence of this species by using C-14 labelling in the reaction of chlorobenzene with sodium amide.
Later, he would probably have employed C-13 labelling and C-13 NMR that he pioneered
with applications in organic chemistry even before FT NMR was invented. As a postdoc in Aksel Bothner-By`s group at Mellon Institute in Pittburgh during the early sixties, Roberts books on basic NMR and later on spin-spin splitting paved the way for understanding and using this new technique and in the following years his publications where always a strong stimulus for my own work. In 1998 I had the pleasure to edit a Special Issue of Magnetic Resonance in Chemistry to celebrate his 80th birthday.
Certainly, Jack Roberts was for the younger generation of NMR spectroscopists a leading figure who strongly inspired our own research. We shall always remember him with gratitude. My sincere condolence to his family.
Bryan Tiedemann (November 5, 2016 10:39 AM)
I remember Prof. Roberts from my time as a Caltech undergraduate in the Chemistry/ChemE department, where he was very encouraging of undergraduate research. His car could be spotted around campus by its "N15NMR" license plates, and spotting his car on the way to the lab was definitely a thing for a few of us in the undergrad chemistry research community. When lecturing, his presence was welcoming and his expertise was inspiring. Caltech's chemistry department was clearly influenced for the better by his leadership
Dorothy Semenow (November 6, 2016 4:20 AM)
Mischievous Jack:
Members of Jack's first Caltech lab posted a signup list for which of the 7 dwarfs each of us would like to be. "Doc" and "Happy" topped the list when, to our surprise and amusement, "Grumpy" was claimed by the trademark "JDR."

At the Research Frontier:
Jack rushed in where others feared to tread, and always made it pay off. He was early to spot tools that might solve one of the many problems in his crosshairs, jumped into the deep water straightaway, kept yelling "Help" to the experts until they taught him how to swim. Then he created instruction manuals customized for the less bold.

Gritty Excellence Personified
Jack (controversally) assessed his intellectual endowments as modest. But, no matter, his personality and character branded everything he did with rare flavorful excellence—from his handwriting to his glass-blowing to his writings and truth-seeking discussions, all infused with his consummate love of chemistry. He always gave his all, he never gave up, and he usually triumphed. He even beat death by voting early!

Robert Buntrock (November 6, 2016 9:07 PM)
As noted in his testimonial to John D. Roberts (Angew. Chemie, 2015), Jeff Seeman cited Roberts as coining the term "nonclassical ions" which of course spawned a wide reaching series of studies, theories, and eventual proofs of NCCIs by the likes of P. von R. Schleyer, S. Winstein, H. C. Brown, etc.
David W Roberts (November 9, 2016 10:03 AM)
To my regret I never met my illustrious namesake (no relation). As a post-doc in Manchester (UK)in the 1960s I came across his book on MO theory for organic chemists, and the insights I got from that have been of lasting benefit throughout my career, for which I'm forever grateful to him.
inge schuster (November 16, 2016 9:12 AM)
Dear JDR - You will live forever in our memories, you will never be forgotten.

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