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Ronald Breslow dies at 86

Columbia University chemistry professor also served as 1996 ACS president

by Stu Borman
October 26, 2017

Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation
Chemist Ronald Breslow with the Othmer Gold Medal, awarded at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in 2006.
Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation
Chemist Ronald Breslow with the Othmer Gold Medal, awarded at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in 2006.

Ronald Breslow—Samuel Latham Mitchill Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University, 1996 president of the American Chemical Society, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences—died Oct. 25 at age 86 in New York City after a struggle with cancer.

“I’m stunned and very sad,” David R. Reichman, chair of the chemistry department at Columbia, tells C&EN. The loss is particularly shocking for department members because another giant in the chemistry field, Columbia professor Gilbert Stork, died only a few days earlier, noted Reichman in an email message he sent to colleagues this morning.

Breslow was born in Rahway, N.J., in 1931. He earned his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in chemistry at Harvard University, where he trained with Nobel Prize winner Robert Burns Woodward. He then served as a postdoctoral fellow with another Nobel Prize winner, Sir Alexander Todd at the University of Cambridge.

After Breslow joined the Columbia faculty in 1956, “he was offered an opportunity to return to Harvard with tenure,” Reichman says. When he turned that down, “it was a tremendous boost for chemistry here. He was an amazingly broad and powerful scientist,” not only in organic chemistry, his main field, but also in physical, inorganic, bioorganic, and other areas. Breslow also chaired a committee that was instrumental in transitioning Columbia College from male-only to coeducational in 1983.

“Ron held the highest rank at Columbia University, University Professor, since 1992,” says his Columbia colleague Ann McDermott. “Despite the fact that he was relieved of formal teaching obligations in that role, he chose to teach year after year and was a favorite of freshman.”

His research focused on the design and synthesis of new molecules. He synthesized the cyclopropenyl cation, the simplest possible aromatic system. He also pioneered the concept of antiaromaticity, discovered the mechanism of thiamine in biochemical reactions, did early work in C–H activation, founded the field of biomimetic chemistry, and developed artificial enzymes.

Alumni of Breslow’s group include many noted chemists, including Alanna Schepartz, Samuel H. Gellman, Eric T. Kool, Robert G. Bergman, Virginia Cornish, Michael Varney, and Nobel Prize winner Robert H. Grubbs.

“He was an intellectual giant,” says Schepartz, now a professor of chemistry at Yale University. “Talking with Ronald about science was like a chess match—one where your opponent was always four moves ahead of you. It was frustrating at first but then so much fun. What I remember most vividly was his kindness for his family, his colleagues, and everyone in his group. He lived an amazing life and will be deeply missed.”

“Ron was one of the most visible ACS presidents,” says former ACS executive director Madeleine Jacobs. “He was unique in his ability to talk about the centrality of chemistry to society. Interest in the next generation permeated every talk he gave. The talks were always about the future of chemistry, what we didn’t know, and what the next generation would discover.”

“He was also an incredibly optimistic person,” Jacobs adds. “No matter what his setbacks were, he always forged ahead. That’s one reason he was such a great scientist. His passing is a huge loss for the world of chemistry. I just don’t think we’re going to see another person like him in our lifetime.”

Breslow’s honors include the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1991; the Priestley Medal, ACS’s highest honor, in 1999; the Welch Award in Chemistry in 2003; the Othmer Gold Medal in 2006; and the Perkin Medal in 2010. He is survived by his wife Esther, professor emerita of biochemistry at Weill Cornell Medical College, and their daughters Karen and Stephanie.



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G. Paul Richter (October 29, 2017 11:39 AM)
As a Rahway-born chemist, I had heard positive things about Ronald Breslow in Rahway High School, where I was six years behind him. After receiving my Ph.D. in Chemistry, I have since followed his wonderfully productive career with interest and a bit of positive envy.
Kenneth C Ehrlich (October 30, 2017 11:53 PM)
Dr Breslow was a great undergradute teacher and an inspiration for study of organic chemistry. Besides knowing Ron as an undergraduate student, I had the honor of post-docing with him from 1970-72 where we struggled to produce a stabilized cyclopropenyl anion and never suceeded. When reactions "failed" Ron always had an explanation for what went wrong. At group meetings, when someone proposed a problem, he was almost always the first to solve it and without use of pencil or paper. He was a kind mentor and brilliant mind. It was an honor to know him and to be his student.
Joseph M. Pecoraro (January 15, 2018 12:04 AM)
I find it amazing that the two Giants of the Organic Chemistry Division of Columbia Prof Breslow and Prof Stork would leave us together. I was Ron Breslow's Graduate Student from 1970-73. I and so many others owe so much to him. I will truly miss him .
Irving Borowitz (November 1, 2017 6:34 PM)
As a student of Gilbert Stork and friend of Ron, I am deeply saddened by the news of their passing. I will always remember Ron's very good sense of humor and friendliness to me as a graduate student at Columbia University. Sincere sympathy to Esther and family.
God Bless,
Irving Borowitz, PhD
Retired Chemistry Professor of Yeshiva University
Jennifer Ball (November 3, 2017 10:12 PM)
I remember Dr. Breslow entertaining parties with his wonderful piano playing. He was a kind man who would even speak to chemists’ spouses, something many other professors would not do. He was wonderful to women. I found him to be a true human being. At one of his 80th birthday parties, he was still gregarious, kind, and funny. His passing is particularly touching because he was a gentleman in all senses of the word; even under adverse conditions, he still maintained humanity and generosity, characteristics rarely seen in others of his stature. He also talked very proudly about his wife and daughters, significant people in their own spheres. He will be very much missed.
Andrew Feiring (November 4, 2017 1:34 AM)
His passing is a great loss to the scientific community. One of the highlights of my career was the opportunity to study with Ron as a post-doctoral fellow in the early 1970's. The ideas he generated were continually stunning. Despite having a large group of graduate students and post-docs, he found the time to frequently and directly interact with each student. Undergraduate, graduate student or post-do, Rom delighted in the interaction with all. I was fortunate to interact with him multiple times after I left Columbia. I stopped by his office about three years ago and it was as if no time had passed. He was still as deeply engaged in solving important problems in chemistry and biochemistry as he had been forty years earlier. His impact was so strong that it is difficult to imagine a world without him.
Franklin P. Mason, Ph.D. (November 14, 2017 4:53 PM)
Dr. Breslow literally changed my life. I worked in his laboratory in 1964-65 as a “prep boy”, running syntheses for the graduate students and post docs. I probably made more methylcyclopropenone than other person on the planet, before or since. Even though I was the lowest of the low, Dr. Breslow included me in all the activities of his group. His group meetings were amazing. I learned more in them than I learned in most classes. Dr. Breslow also arranged for me to take classes at Columbia University. I had had three years at another college. But the classes at Columbia were on an entirely different level. One of the classes I took was biochemistry, taught by Dr. Breslow, in which I earned an A+. The entire experience transformed me from a “C” student to an “A” student. I later went on to earn my Ph.D. in chemistry, which I probably would not have done were it not for my time with Dr. Breslow. I can’t express enough my gratitude to and affection for this wonderful, caring human being.
Philip Warner (December 4, 2017 1:17 PM)
I first met Ron in late 1963. I was a freshman taking organic chemistry with Charlie Dawson. My TA, Larry Altman, told me I might be able to work in Ron’s group instead of just doing standard organic lab, but I had to be OK’d by Ron. The first thing Ron asked me was what I planned to do for a career; he then said “be a professor, right”. I said something like of course, and I was in. After doing preps fo a year or so, I also worked on the cyclopropenyl anion with Joe Gajewski. Other group members included Dave Chipman, Lenny Kaplan, Bob Moss, Bobby Grubbs; Bob Bergman took over my bench after I graduated. All the previous comments about Ron (intellectual ability, especially quickness, piano skills, love of family and students) are echoed here. Ron was a career-long mentor and forward thinker. I am shocked and saddened by his death. May his family find solace in his wonderful life.
Phil Warner, Professor Emeritus, Northeastern University, Boston, MA

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