Purdue’s First Nobel Prize Winner Leaves Legacy
|Japanese Professor Ei-ichi Negishi of Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, one of this year’s Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, reacts during a press conference at Japan national Press Club in Tokyo, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2010. Negishi won the Nobel Prize for his work in the 1960s and ’70s of one of the most sophisticated tools available to chemists today, called palladium-catalyzed cross coupling. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)|
They warned him to come armed — and he did. When Herbert C. Brown, Purdue University’s first Nobel Prize winner, walked into a hall at Harvard University circa 1960 and laid a handgun on the table, his audience got the point.
“There was a joke going around that he should come armed because there was a lot of controversy at the time,” said Harry Morrison, a Purdue University organic chemistry professor who was a doctoral student at the Boston institution. At issue was a famous academic uproar over Brown’s interpretation of non-classical ions, one at odds with other researchers.
“The gun was given to him by another faculty (member) there. He achieved a fair amount of notoriety on that account.”
Those who knew the longtime Purdue professor, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1979 and died in 2004, say he was a larger-than-life personality whose influence resonates today.
Brown’s reputation rose even higher in October 2010 after two of his proteges, Ei-ichi Negishi of Purdue and Akira Suzuki of Sapporo, Japan, were selected as Nobel laureates in chemistry.
“The influence is not only felt at the department here but the whole world. There are only a few Browns in the world in chemistry,” said P.V. Ramachandran, a Purdue chemistry professor who worked with Brown for 20 years and now continues his research.
“See, Brown started off as a physical organic chemist, and he was hired at Purdue as an inorganic chemist. He ended up as an organic chemist. That shows there are no real boundaries … everything is merging after some level.
“And his methodologies are used today and will be 30 years from now. You cannot make molecules without Brown’s chemistry.”
Brown, who joined the Purdue faculty in 1947, was born the son of Ukrainian Jews and moved to Chicago from London when he was two. After his father died, he worked in a hardware store and in factories to support his mother and three sisters.
In 1932, he enrolled in electrical engineering at Crane Junior College in Chicago. A freshman chemistry course altered his life forever, as did a dark-eyed classmate, Sarah Baylen. She inscribed his college yearbook: “To a future Nobel laureate.”
His research specialty was inspired by a $2 book that Baylen gave him for graduation in 1936, titled “Hydrides of Boron and Silicon.”
At that time, during the Great Depression, money was scarce. That particular volume was chosen because it was the cheapest chemistry book sold in the University of Chicago bookstore.
Brown is best known for his pioneering work with boron compounds.
His discoveries revolutionized synthetic organic chemistry and led to the creation of many organic compounds, including medications such as the antidepressant Prozac and the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor.
He received the Nobel Prize in 1979 with German chemist Georg Wittig of the University of Heidelberg.
Brown refused to call that the capstone of his career. The word “capstone,” he said, reminded him of the word “tombstone,” and in 1979, he felt he still had much work to do.
Indeed, although he “retired in 1978” and went off-salary at Purdue, he spent about 30 hours a week in his lab or his office, keeping up a daunting pace of writing and publishing.
Ask Negishi what made Brown a good mentor, and he laughs.
“I can write a book,” said Negishi, who was a postdoctoral associate with Brown from 1966 to 1968 and then his research assistant through 1972.
The two remained especially close after Negishi returned to Purdue in 1979 until Brown’s death.
Many of Brown’s traits — optimism, patience, openness and scrupulous attention to detail — have become second nature to Negishi and many others who credit Brown for shaping their careers and lives.
It is estimated that Brown worked with about 500 graduate students and postdoctoral associates in his career.
“He wouldn’t quit,” Negishi said. “He kept going and growing, like a big tree.”
Richard C. Larock, a distinguished professor of chemistry at Iowa State University, said Brown sought him out while he was an undergraduate at University of California-Davis through two long letters. Letter writing was a hallmark Brown trait.
While Larock was influenced immediately by some research methods during his studies from 1967 to 1971, it wasn’t until years later that he appreciated the way Brown let his students freely explore their own ideas.
But when Larock did, it created a field of soy plastic composites.
“What has always struck me was this enthusiasm for chemistry and his openness for students. He gave you freedom to try out your own work and ideas,” said Larock, who has since penned “Comprehensive Organic Transformations,” the so-called chemist’s bible for chemical synthesis.
“He would lay out the picture and tell you, ‘I’d like to see this or that happen.’ That is not common for a researcher to do that and not keep it close to the chest.”
Surendra Kulkarni, senior director of research and development at Dow Chemical in India, worked with Brown from 1973 until 1982.
Kulkarni was invited, along with Negishi, to attend the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1979. Brown paid for everything.
Besides being an amazing scientist, Kulkarni said Brown also was a “great humanitarian” who looked out for the students in his group and helped them deal with situations, from family to medical.
When Kulkarni was scraping by on a fellowship, Brown found a job for his wife in his office.
Whenever Kulkarni returned to Purdue after 1983, the Browns would insist he stay with them.
Most of all, he remembers how Brown pushed them to unravel mysteries.
“He always used to tell us, ‘Don’t complain that you don’t have enough opportunities. If you have a sharp mind, you can always find something that is available,'” Kulkarni said.
Sanjay Malhotra was a research associate with Brown in the mid-1990s for four years. Now working at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, MD, he said Brown’s teaching has guided him, either directly or subconsciously, through his work related to drug trials.
“You have to have patience to stay with the molecule and stay with projects, and you never know what will come out,” he said. “He taught that. “His approach to research was unique. It was very in-depth and patient.”
The evolving legacy of Brown, they say, is the hundreds of students he taught who now are scattered throughout academia and industry.
Some are teaching and others are creating new drugs or venturing into uncharted chemistry zones.
The legacy of Brown is permanent at Purdue.
The Herbert C. Brown Laboratory of Chemistry was named in his honor, an archive of Brown’s work also is kept, and the Herbert C. Brown Center for Borane Research continues.
A new display celebrating Brown’s Nobel Prize is in the works at Wetherill Labratory of Chemistry. It will be next to Negishi’s recently unveiled display.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press