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 VOL. 23, NO. 13JANUARY 30, 1998 

Six Columbians Among Top Chemists of Past 75 Years


Columbia professors Ronald Breslow and Gilbert Stork have been named two of the most important chemists worldwide of the past 75 years. The list also includes two late faculty, Louis Hammett and Harold Urey, and two prominent alumni, Roald Hoffman and the late Irving Langmuir.

  Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly news magazine of the American Chemical Society, published in its Jan. 12 issue a list of the top 75 chemists to celebrate the society’s 75th anniversary. To have six great chemists associated with Columbia named to the top 75 is a signal honor and evidence that this department remains a leader in the field,” said Kenneth Eisenthal, professor and chairman of chemistry. “These chemists span the century, from the early days when radioactivity was a novel phenomenon, to chemical science today, when we can assemble atoms one by one to create the pharmaceuticals of the 21st century.”

  The magazine asked readers to nominate distinguished chemists who had made the most significant advances in the field. The names of more than 1,200, living and dead, were submitted. Among the chosen honorees are 35 winners of the Nobel Prize, 19 holders of the National Medal of Science and 27 recipients of the society’s top award, the prestigious Priestley Medal.


  Breslow, a former president of the society, also co-chaired a committee that reported in the same issue what chemistry will be like in 2023, the year of the society’s centennial. They saw advances that would unlock the secrets of the human body and transform the interaction between chemistry and medicine; chemical synthesis by artificial intelligence; and, through genetic engineering, the use of living plants as a principal source of oil and plastics.

  Breslow, University Professor, who has taught at Columbia for more than 41 years, was cited for his invention of artificial enzymes. He also proposed and demonstrated antiaromaticity, the remarkable instability of certain hydrocarbons that do not contain the magic six electrons of aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene. Breslow invented a series of novel cytodifferentiating agents that scientists at the National Institutes of Health are examining as anticancer candidates, and discovered numerous chemical and biochemical reaction mechanisms. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1955 and has won the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences, in 1989, and the National Medal of Science, in 1991.


  Stork, the Higgins Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, has taught at Columbia for 44 years and is continuing his work with the title of special research scientist. His work has focused on designing artificial cognates of antibiotics, hormones and other bioactive molecules, chemically modified relatives that have greater activity or selectivity, or reduced toxicity. In order to achieve this goal, Stork has developed a number of methods to construct multidimensional arrays of carbon atoms that form the basis of such molecules. He is well-known for pioneering three-dimensional chemical synthesis and made the first stereorational synthesis of a substance, cantharidin, in 1951. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1945 and won the 1983 National Medal of Science and the 1996 Wolf Prize in Chemistry.

  Hammett, who died in 1987, earned his Ph.D. in 1923 and taught at Columbia from 1920 to 1961. He developed the Hammett equation for linear free-energy relationships and studied correlation between changes in a substance’s chemical structure with its chemical properties. He won the 1961 Priestley Medal and the 1967 National Medal of Science.


  Hoffman, now a professor of chemistry at Cornell, received the B.A. from Columbia College in 1958. He established ways of thinking about reactivity of molecules based on molecular orbitals, the energy levels occupied by electrons associated with a nucleus. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1981 and the National Medal of Science in 1983.

  Langmuir, who died in 1957, received his bachelor’s degree from Columbia’s School of Mines. He invented the high-vacuum electron tube and the gas-filled incandescent lamp and won the 1932 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

  Urey, who died in 1981, received the Ph.D. from U.C.-Berkeley in 1923 and taught at Columbia from 1929 to 1945. He discovered deuterium, also known as heavy hydrogen, and worked on the problem of isotope separation. He won the Nobel Prize in 1934.