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Woodward, Robert Burns

synthesis organic syntheses chemistry

(1917–79) US organic chemist: probably the greatest deviser of organic syntheses.

Woodward’s career was marked throughout by brilliance. He went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he was only 16, was ‘sent down’ for a year for ‘inattention to formal studies’ but nevertheless emerged with his PhD at 20. Soon he moved to Harvard, and remained there. He did major work in most areas of organic chemistry, but his most striking work was in the synthesis of complex natural products. His successes in synthesis included quinine (1944), cholesterol and cortisone (1951), lysergic acid (the parent of the hallucinogen LSD) and strychnine (1954); the first major tranquillizer, reserpine (1956), chlorophyll (1960) and the tetracycline antibiotics (1962). The high point was the synthesis of vitamin B 12 (cyanocobalamin) in 1971, after 10 years’ work in collaboration with a team of Swiss chemists, led by A Eschenmoser at ETH Zurich. Woodward, fuelled in the hundred-stage synthesis by a mixture of whisky, cigarettes and arrogance, died before the Nobel committee could consider the award to him of a second prize: he had been awarded one Nobel Prize in 1965.

In each case the work was marked by the elegance and ingenuity of the synthesis, in making a valuable and highly complicated product from simple starting materials, using a large number of chemical steps. His methods frequently provided novel general syntheses of other compounds. In 1965 he developed the Woodward–Hoffmann rules concerning the path of a large class of addition reactions.

He had a remarkable memory, an unsurpassed knowledge of organic chemistry and a cool wit. In many ways modest, at conferences he sported a blue silk tie embroidered with the full formula of strychnine, which he had synthesized in 50 stages, each well planned.

Woolworth, F. W. - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: F. W. Woolworth [next] [back] Woodbury, Helen Laura Sumner (1876–1933) - U.S. Labor History

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