In Search Of Mizoroki And Heck
Folks who read my story on named reactions this week might wonder why I chose to highlight the Heck reaction, or Mizoroki-Heck reaction. Sure, it’s one of the most well-known reactions in organic chemistry, but how’d I narrow it down?
Well, the answer is that I didn’t narrow anything down. Reading the phrase “Mizoroki-Heck reaction” was what got me interested in the topic of named reactions in the first place. Last fall, I wrote a short news story about a new process that had the potential to complement the chemistry. I got my Ph.D. in an organic chemistry lab, so I’d certainly read about the Heck reaction even though I’d never gotten a chance to use it. So reading “Mizoroki-Heck” caught me by surprise. (Note: there was a discussion of this last fall on CBC that I’d missed until recently). I started asking around about the name. And then I started asking about the men behind it. I just happened to get lucky that the story had so many layers.
I worked on this story on-and-off for months, simultaneously trying to track down Mizoroki and Heck. Working from home during the big snowstorms that paralyzed DC, I reached Doug Taber at the University of Delaware, who was a former colleague of Heck’s. The best way to reach Heck in the Philippines was by phone, I learned. Taber gave me Heck’s phone number, but when I called I got an incomprehensible recording, presumably in the Tagalog language. But wait a minute, I thought. Maureen (that’s C&EN’s deputy-editor-in-chief Maureen Rouhi) speaks Tagalog. She can help.
So early the next morning, Maureen dialed Heck’s phone number. Thanks to her, I scored a 7AM interview with the man himself a few days later. Speaking with Heck over the phone was surreal. He was funny and self-deprecating. He recalled meeting Mizoroki once, but couldn’t remember the details of their meeting. During the entire interview, I could hear a “ka-chunk” sound in the background. That was his washing machine.
In my story, I described how Heck retired in 1989 after he ran into problems finding funding for his research. I also mentioned that in 2006, he returned to the bench and one of his first loves, cobalt carbonyl chemistry, for a sabbatical at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Victor Snieckus hosted Heck during the sabbatical, but he hadn’t been able to reach Heck by phone or letter for some time. I was happy to be able to pass along the correct contact information. In return Snieckus provided several photos from Heck’s sabbatical time to C&EN, and here we’re posting the best of them for your viewing pleasure.
We almost ran the story without a photo of Tsutomu Mizoroki, the late Japanese chemist who published the first example of what most chemists call the Heck reaction. Emeritus professor Jiro Tsuji and Takakazu Yamamoto of Tokyo Institute of Technology helped me piece together Mizoroki’s story, but a photo of Mizoroki that Tsuji sent got lost in the mail. And officials at the Center for Public Information at Tokyo Tech, where Mizoroki worked until his death, had a photo but did not have permission to release it to me. (During my quest I was treated to the Center’s hold muzak for a bit. Imagine a tinny MIDI version of Mendelssohn’s Spring Song. Over and over.) When I started my research, I couldn’t believe that people had written entire tomes about the reaction and none of them had Mizoroki’s photo. Yes, the chemistry is a critically important part, but I just wanted to see what Mizoroki looked like.
The day my story was due, I got Mizoroki’s photo at last- chemical historian Jeff Seeman had put out a call for help on my behalf some time earlier, and via Koji Nakanishi of Columbia University, I got in touch with Takashi Takahashi and Shinichiro Fuse of Tokyo Tech. Not sure what they told the Center for Public Information, but I got the photo that we ran in the magazine the next day. With help from Mizoroki’s daughter, Ms. Akiko Morita, Takahashi even managed to dig up another photo, shown here. I still hold out hope that the original photo from Tsuji will show up in the mail someday. But I couldn’t have written this story without the help of dozens of chemists around the world, and I’d like to say thank you to them all.
Images of Heck courtesy Victor Snieckus. Image of Mizoroki courtesy Takashi Takahashi and Mizoroki’s daughter, Ms. Akiko Morita