Delaware’s Day For Richard Heck
These days, it’s hard to pull Richard Heck away from his orchids, from his life in a rented bungalow in the Philippines. But when you’re a Nobel Laureate, folks tend to want to meet you, to glean some wisdom from your experiences, and to shower you with still more honors.
And so it was that Heck, who shared the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in organometallic chemistry, came back to the States with his wife Socorro to attend a symposium held in his honor. Over five hundred chemists from 20 states and from countries as far away as Japan packed a conference center at the event, held at the University of Delaware, Heck’s academic home from 1971 to 1989. Luminaries in catalysis, including Heck’s fellow laureate, Purdue University’s Ei-ichi Negishi, gave presentations. Via a letter, Delaware’s governor Jack Markell declared May 26, 2011 Richard Heck Day. The day truly belonged to Heck, a self-described introvert who at times seemed humbled by all the fuss.
From what little I’d interacted with Heck, this came as no surprise. In May of last year I interviewed him for a story on named reactions, where his namesake chemistry, the Heck reaction (or Mizoroki-Heck reaction, depending on who you ask) was prominently featured. He was funny and self-deprecating in our brief interview, and he seemed settled enough in that flat in Quezon City that I figured I’d never meet him in person, even after his Nobel Prize was announced. When Delaware chemist Joseph Fox told me about the Heck symposium, I jumped at the chance to attend.
“A lot of people know the Heck reaction,” Fox, who emcee’d the proceedings and spearheaded their organization, said amidst the occasional camera flash from the audience and the local press. Fox reminded the audience that Heck has an intimidating resume far beyond the palladium-catalyzed process that bears his name, including one of the first reports of a pi-allyl metal complex, as well as work on transfer hydrogenation and the process that eventually came to be called the Sonogashira reaction.
Heck “is one of my chemical heroes,” said MIT’s Stephen Buchwald, who presented his own team’s work on Thursday. “This year the Nobel Committee got it right.”
Until relatively recently “organic chemists didn’t do organometallic chemistry,” UC Berkeley’s Dean Toste told the crowd. “The Heck work really changed that.”
“We’re humbled that much of this work took place at the University of Delaware, and so proud that our name can be linked with yours,” the University of Delaware’s President Patrick Harker told Heck and the audience.
Witnessing the parade of praise for Heck next to me in the audience sat Take-aki Mitsudo, today a professor at Japan’s Kyoto University, but in the 1980s a postdoc with Heck at the University of Delaware. He held a binder that contained a printout of a 1984 Journal of Organic Chemistry paper that he’d published with Heck. He proudly showed it off to me.
It was a surreal feeling, to be surrounded by people so humbled to be in the presence of someone so humble. Heck granted 5-minute interviews to me and to other members of the press in attendance. In a windowless white room, sparely furnished with a chair and two tables, he spoke frankly about his career’s ups and downs.
As a teen, Heck moved to the Los Angeles suburbs with his father, a salesman, and his mother, a housewife. Tasked with filling an empty yard with greenery, he dove into gardening and started reading up on fertilizers, weed killers, nutrients, and plant pigments. “I got to noticing these things were chemicals, and it got me interested in finding out about chemistry,” he said.
His first job after finishing his studies was with the Hercules Powder Company in Wilmington, Delaware, where he began his studies on what became the Heck reaction. He was laid off from Hercules when the company shifted research directions. He then moved to the University of Delaware, and after many productive years there, his funding dried up.
“I think that happens to a lot of people,” Heck told me. “You don’t expect to get funded forever. It depends on what you do and what the climate is for money. I wasn’t too surprised at that happening. It was disappointing, of course.”
Heck kept things close to the vest at the time, remembered Lee J. Silverberg, Heck’s last graduate student, now an assistant professor of chemistry at Penn State’s Schuylkill campus, over a lunch salad. At the luncheon, an executive at Ashland, the chemical company that in 2008 bought Hercules, announced that Heck would be the guest of honor at their site the following day.
Heck’s pioneering work with palladium brought sweeping change to how organic synthesis was done in academia and industry. But citations of his work and the spread of his chemistry didn’t truly take off until after 1989, the year Heck retired, as Queen’s University chemist Victor Snieckus pointed out with a graph during his talk. It’s easy to wonder what Heck might’ve accomplished had he stayed in chemistry for another few years. But Heck told me he’s happy with his choice to leave chemistry when he did.
“I was happy with doing resarch but I didn’t like the hassle of it,” Heck said. The constant search for money and problems writing proposals were draining, he adds. “I got tired of that and I thought, well, I’m old enough and I think I would enjoy retirement, so I retired instead of fighting the system.”
Heck opted to forego the traditional keynote address and instead agreed to a question and answer period with Delaware’s chemistry department chair Klaus Theopold. In a lively exchange, Heck, onstage in a wheelchair, fielded questions Theopold collected from chemistry colleagues. It was his shyness, and the associated reluctance to get involved with teaching, that made him choose industry as his first career step, Heck said.
Asked whether he realized the significance of his work as he was discovering new things, whether he ever wondered about the Nobel Prize, Heck said “I didn’t try for it, but it just happened. I don’t think you work for a Nobel Prize.”
Some chemists do, Theopold retorted to raucous laughter from the audience.
But Richard Heck was never that chemist. And the 500 scientists who at the end of the interview rose to their feet to give Heck a standing ovation knew it.
I attend a lot of conferences, symposia, and dinners as part of my job at C&E News. But Heck Day was really something special to me. I came away thinking that Dick Heck is more than just a great chemist. He’s a person who’s thoroughly enjoyed his life, and that’s something that anyone, not just a chemist, should strive to do.