Robert H. Grubbs, a Nobel laureate and the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, died on Dec. 19 at the age of 79. Grubbs mainly developed novel organometallic catalysts and used them to make new compounds and polymers. But his impact on chemistry went beyond his research.
Grubbs won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005 along with Richard R. Schrock of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yves Chauvin of the French Petroleum Institute. The three chemists shared the award equally for their work developing olefin metathesis, a key reaction for redistributing carbon-carbon bonds by breaking and then remaking C-C double bonds. Grubbs’ contribution involved the design and synthesis of his eponymous catalysts for these reactions. In 1998, Grubbs started the company Materia, which makes thermoset resins using this metathesis chemistry.
“Bob Grubbs’ remarkable scientific achievements are well documented by his many awards and honors,” says Dennis A. Dougherty, chair of Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, in an article on Caltech’s website. “Those who knew him will remember him as an equally remarkable husband, father, grandfather, friend, and colleague.”
MIT chemical biologist Laura Kiessling says that his work was instrumental to her when she began her independent career. “His work helped us identify using defined polymers to explore biology,” she says. Kiessling also describes Grubbs as an empowering mentor and friend, not just to her but her whole family. Grubbs taught her daughter to shoot BB guns at grapefruit, and hosted Kiessling’s family for the Superbowl for many years.
Other chemists shared similar recollections with C&EN. University of Oxford chemist Stuart Conway, who took a sabbatical at Caltech in 2013, says that despite the pair “not having much in common scientifically,” Grubbs was immediately welcoming to Conway and his family. Personal memories of the time include an invitation to a cookout at the Grubbs’ house with food and beer, and Grubbs playing soccer with Conway’s oldest son. “It seems typical of Bob that he was very down to earth and enjoyed simple socializing and getting to know people,” Conway adds. “I remember Bob being very kind and laid back. He had nothing to gain from his interactions with me but was happy to help out anyway.”
Tim Swager, a chemist at MIT, got his PhD with Grubbs in the 1980s. He told C&EN in an email: “History will remember Bob Grubbs as one of the greatest chemists of all time. Although only part of what he accomplished, the Grubbs catalysts have transformed complex molecule synthesis, polymer chemistry, materials science, and the production of chemical feedstocks. As important as his chemistry was, Bob was equally famous for his kind, friendly, and unassuming nature. He touched so many in a positive way, and multiple generations of chemists will be recounting their special interactions with Bob for many decades to come.”
Jennifer Love of the University of Calgary worked as a postdoc with Grubbs from 2000 to 2003, exploring the mechanisms involved in olefin metathesis. She also remembers Grubbs’ mentorship fondly. “Bob was full of life and full of humility,” she recalls. As she began her independent career, she says Grubbs told her that professors need to come to terms with the fact that they can’t give 100% to anything. “I always come back to that when I start to get overwhelmed,” Love says.
Grubbs was born in rural Kentucky in 1942. “In some places, my birthplace is listed as Calvert City and in others Possum Trot,” he wrote in his Nobel Prize biography. “I was actually born between the two, so either one really is correct.” Grubbs originally went to the University of Florida as an agricultural chemistry major but became fascinated with organic chemistry. As a master’s student, he worked with Merle Battiste at Florida before moving to Columbia University to complete his PhD with Ronald Breslow. While at Columbia, Grubbs met his wife Helen, who survives him, and with whom he had three children: Barney, Brendan, and Kathleen.
Grubbs was incredibly proud of his children, Kiessling says. When she would visit Grubbs to catch up on science, she says, Grubbs would instead spend the whole time catching her up with their accomplishments and news.
This story was updated on Dec. 22, 2021, to add chemical biologist Laura Kiessling's affiliation. She is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.