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Obituaries

Spectroscopy pioneer Richard P. Van Duyne dies at 73

Van Duyne helped develop and explain the mechanism behind the SERS technique used in analytical chemistry and sensors

by Sam Lemonick
August 2, 2019

 

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Credit: Evanston Photographic Studios
Richard Van Duyne

Richard P. Van Duyne, the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, died July 28 at the age of 73.

A pioneer and leader in the field of analytical chemistry, Van Duyne is also remembered as a generous mentor who launched scores of chemists’ careers. “His stature in the community was more than just what he was able to accomplish himself,” says George C. Schatz, a theoretical chemist at Northwestern and Van Duyne’s collaborator for more than 40 years.

Van Duyne’s scientific legacy is his work with surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS), a technique that enhances the weak signals of conventional Raman spectroscopy to reveal structural information about compounds, even down to a single molecule. Other researchers first observed the effect in 1974 on a roughened metal surface, but in 1977 Van Duyne explained its electromagnetic mechanism. He continued to develop the technique throughout his career, pushing its limits to single molecules and later combining it with scanning probe microscopy to obtain both a Raman spectrum and a visual signature of a molecule.

Van Duyne and others have developed a wide array of applications for SERS. His group designed SERS-based glucose sensors that people with diabetes could use to monitor their blood-sugar levels. And museum conservators have used SERS to identify pigments in paint.

Colleagues and members of his lab knew him as an expansive, creative thinker who stayed abreast of all the latest developments in his fields. Several former students and postdocs recall regular conversations over coffee that could range from new papers and new ideas to the news of the day.

He was also a tirelessly supportive mentor, particularly of women, many of whom he encouraged to pursue academic positions. “I haven’t talked to a single student who didn’t adore him and appreciate how much he did for their career,” says Geraldine L. Richmond, a physical chemist at the University of Oregon. Mentees say he continued to write letters of support for them to hiring and award committees even years after they left his group. His generosity extended beyond his own lab as well, to other young scientists who considered him a mentor, too.

Several years ago his former group members and colleagues hosted a 70th birthday party for him. Christa Brosseau, a physical chemist at St. Mary’s University in Halifax and former postdoc in Van Duyne’s group, remembers one thing he told them: “Never give up, always swing for the fences, and surround yourself with smart people.”

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