Most Nobel laureates don’t carry their gold medallion in their wallets. Ei-ichi Negishi, who shared the 2010 Chemistry Prize for his work on palladium-catalyzed coupling reactions, was not most Nobel laureates. Laureates can get artificial duplicates of their Nobel Prize medallions, but Negishi would carry the real one, says James Tour, an organic chemist at Rice University and a graduate student of Negishi’s in the 1980s.
“He was very generous in sharing that joy with everybody,” Tour says. “At dinners, he’d pass it around for everybody to hold, this big chunk of gold.” A friend once even dropped the medallion, which dented. Negishi just laughed, Tour says. “His nose did not turn up when he won this prize,” he says. “He was just as accessible, just as jovial.”
Negishi died on June 6 at the age of 85. He was the Herbert C. Brown Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Purdue University. In 1977, he reported the reaction that later became known as the Negishi Coupling, which uses a palladium catalyst to couple asymmetrical carbon-carbon compounds in high yields (Chem. Comm. 1977, DOI: 10.1039/C39770000683). This reaction has had an enormous impact on multiple fields of chemistry.
“If you’re going to make highly conjugated molecules, with double bonds, or triple bonds, or aryl rings, you’re probably going to use his coupling reactions,” Tour says. The Negishi Coupling is used to synthesize pharmaceuticals, materials, polymers, and practically any C-C bonds. “If you build molecules, you know his work,” Tour says.
Negishi shared the Nobel Prize with Richard F. Heck and Akira Suzuki for palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis. Negishi’s version brings together aromatic halides with organozinc compounds to form new single bonds between carbon atoms.
“With the departure of Professor Negishi the world has lost one of its most original tool creators for chemistry,” says Tony Zhang, CEO of Tyligand Bioscience Ltd, who finished his PhD with Negishi in 1989. Negishi valued logic and creativity in research and encouraged his students to think about possible solutions before doing literature searches, so they would avoid the temptation of easy and easily available answers, Zhang says. “He believed that maintaining one’s mental independence is fundamental to creativity,” which made it hard to watch Negishi experience Alzheimer's disease in the last few years, he says.
In a statement from Purdue, College of Science dean Patrick J. Wolfe says, “On the very day he wins the Nobel, he’s in class with his students. He was extremely approachable and passionate about not only those he served, but served with. His legacy is so much more than his Nobel … it’s the inspiration he provided on a daily basis.”
This story was updated on June 14, 2021, to include comments from Tony Zhang.