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Organic chemist David A. Evans dies at 81

Reaction inventor and total synthesis expert changed the way chemists think about stereoselective reactions

by Bethany Halford
May 5, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 16


David A Evans.
Credit: Courtesy of Sally Evans
David A Evans

David A. Evans, the Abbott and James Lawrence Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, died April 29 at the age of 81.

Former students and colleagues remember Evans as a dedicated educator and a creative force in organic synthesis. He is best known for devising a way to use chiral oxazolidinone auxiliaries to control a target molecule’s stereochemistry. “That changed the whole mindset of how people thought about going about building molecules stereoselectively,” says David W. C. MacMillan, a chemistry professor at Princeton University who worked with Evans as a postdoctoral fellow in the late 1990s. Before Evans’s work, chemists used a small number of building blocks known as the chiral pool. “When Dave came along, he upended all of that thinking,” MacMillan says.

Evans invented dozens of other useful synthetic methods, including sigmatropic rearrangements and hydride reductions. He also explored and made important contributions in the fields of organosilicon and organosulfur chemistry.

“I think people will remember not only the methodology but the impact of that methodology on total synthesis,” says Margaret Faul, who earned her PhD in Evans’s group in the early 1990s and is now vice president of manufacturing and clinical supply at Amgen. Evans’s synthetic strategies were used to make sublimely complex natural products, including the glycosylated antibiotic vancomycin and bryostatin 2, a marine macrolide lactone.

In addition to his contributions to chemistry, many remember Evans as a passionate teacher. He and his wife, Sally, also were involved in developing and popularizing the chemical structure–drawing software ChemDraw.

Evans was born in Washington, DC, in 1941. He studied chemistry with Norman Craig at Oberlin College and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1963. Evans completed his doctoral studies in 1967 at the California Institute of Technology, where he worked with Robert E. Ireland. He held faculty positions at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Caltech before moving to Harvard in 1983.

Evans garnered many honors during his career, including the American Chemical Society’s Arthur C. Cope Award, the Welch Award, and the Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry.

Donations in his memory can be made in support of Oberlin College’s David A. Evans ’63 Chemistry Prize at



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