Gilbert Stork on How Not to Dispose of a Steak

Gilbert Stork as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, possibly thinking of the best way to get rid of the steak mouldering on his window ledge. Courtesy of Gilbert Stork

When writing about science, it's easy to focus on the facts of discovery and leave out the actual scientists who do the work. This is a shame, since science is ultimately a human endeavor, spurred on by folks with colorful personalities that often compliment (and sometimes overshadow) their remarkable intellect. Now chemistry historian Jeffrey I. Seeman, of the University of Richmond, has put together a collection of witticisms by and about renowned synthetic organic chemist Gilbert Stork. It just went up online in Angewandte Chemie. I know not everyone has access to Angewandte Chemie, and the article is on the long side, so I thought I'd poach some of my favorite tidbits for you, dear reader of this blog. Here's the gem that gives this post its name:

“There was this one really idiotic time. I remember I was really scared that I was going to blow up the entire Chemistry Department at the University of Wisconsin. I had a steak on the window ledge of my office. It was the winter, and I used the window ledge as a refrigerator. You obviously were not supposed to be cooking steaks in the lab, but I had a small lab where I was usually alone in there, and so I had a steak. But I also was not aware that biodegradable material is biodegradable, and this steak was clearly degraded on the window ledge. And the question was, what to do with it? And I decided to toss the steak in a hot acid bath which we used to clean up glassware. So, it's fuming nitric and sulfuric acid. It's really aqua regia in that bath, in that heavy lead dish, and the steak.

“And then, as I just had thrown it in there, and it fumed furiously and red fumes of who knows what, nitrous oxide of various kinds were being produced there. I became frantically concerned because fat is glycerides. So, I'm hydrolyzing the fat to glycerin. You make nitroglycerine by taking glycerin and nitric acid and sulfuric acid, and obviously, I'm going to produce a pile of nitroglycerine and blow up the entire building with my steak.

“Now, what is an interesting point there, why didn't it? And of course, the reason is kinetics. That is, the kinetics of oxidation of the glycerol at that temperature is much, much, much, I mean, infinitely faster than the cold temperature nitration of glycerin. And so the place was safe.”

Here's Stork on his occasionally questionable choice of laboratory attire:

“I used to make diethylaluminum cyanide myself, and I usually liked to do it on December 31st because it's my birthday, and it was a sort of black humor that, if I died on that day, it would be easy to tell how old I was. And so I would do it. In fact, I sometimes did it in a tuxedo, which was really some ridiculous operation.”

While Stork is pretty funny, his colleagues' recollections about him are perhaps even more amusing. Frances Hoffmann, a longtime friend of Storck's and former Director of Chemical Laboratories at Columbia, offers this golden nugget:

“How can such an intelligent man [as Gilbert] insist on buying cars which, without fail, are incapacitated at least fifty percent of the time? One of these 'treasures' was a sporty, white Simca with red leather seats. After spending a good amount of money transporting it from France, a small fortune to adapt it to New Jersey requirements and further fortunes to keep it running, the engine blew up as he was driving to Yale to present the Treat B. Johnson lectures. With the usual Storkian luck, the car was on an incline which terminated in front of a gas station. Gilbert arranged for the car to be fixed and took a train to New Haven. He retrieved the car on the way back after contributing Yale's honorarium to the garage mechanic. While on the Merritt Parkway, the engine exploded again. While he was removing the license plates, a state trooper stopped to check on the strange situation. With characteristic aplomb, Gilbert struck a bargain—the state trooper could have the car in exchange for [$25 and] a ride to the nearest railway station. [Who] made out best on that one?”

Stork continues this episode by reporting, “When I called my wife for a ride from New York to our New Jersey home, she asked, 'What happened to your car?' 'I sold it to a policeman' was my answer.”

Here's what Columbia University's Ronald Breslow had to say about driving with Stork:

“I remember being in the death seat in a car Gilbert was driving. While he was talking to me, he looked at me, not out the front window. That was Gilbert being polite, but how did he keep from an accident? Then I realized, when I showed a look of horror, he took it as a clue that there was something ahead and temporarily looked out the windshield.”

 And this one, from late University of Wisconsin, Madison, professor William S. Johnson:

“There is nothing contrived about Gilbert's humor which just comes naturally, and being with him engenders a feeling that is not unlike watching a Woody Allen movie. Several chemists collect and exchange anecdotes about him; one of these is recorded here.

“On the occasion of the 1957 Spring ACS meeting in Miami, Gilbert was receiving one of the most prestigious honors in chemistry, the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry. The Storks and Johnsons had arranged to stay at a hotel at Miami Beach. It was very hot and we got badly sunburned before the meeting. Gilbert had rented a convertible for taxiing over to the city where the sessions were being held. While driving over, with the top down, just before his award address, he kept looking at some rather crumpled papers which he propped up on the steering wheel. When questioned, he put on air of nonchalance in the face of utter disaster and explained to us that he was trying to decide what he was going to talk about.

“The very large auditorium was packed with people, most of whom had, not long before, heard a talk given by Bob Woodward who appeared, as usual, immaculately dressed in his blue suit and began his talk with the dramatic introduction, 'The lecture that I am privileged to deliver today concerns recent work that has never before been disclosed in the Western Hemisphere.' Now Gilbert, after being introduced, stood up at the podium looking quite non-Woodwardian in his rumpled suit that had suffered from the open air ride in the severe heat. Then he began, 'The lecture that I am privileged to deliver today concerns recent work that has never before been disclosed in Miami.' This brought the house down, and I laughed so hard as to cause conversion of an incipient hernia into a major rupture requiring surgery soon after I returned home. (Before writing the above anecdote, I phoned Gilbert to see how he felt about having it published. Among other things, he said, 'I never did understand why people thought my remark was so funny.'”

I asked Seeman what made him decide to put this collection of "Storkisms" together and he said he had three goals: "First, I like and deeply respect Gilbert Stork. I wanted to celebrate his birthday in a very special way. I wanted Gilbert to know that. Second, so much of what Gilbert has said has both pedagogical and entertainment value. We can both learn from Gilbert and enjoy Gilbert. That's special, indeed. And third, Gilbert is symbolic of one of the Golden Ages of Classical Organic Chemistry: the second half of the 20th Century. We are losing so many of our heroes, and to a large extent, Gilbert stands strong for all of them."  

Author: Bethany Halford

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  1. It was about the 5th or 6th week of classes when Stork entered into the room — where there wasn’t a seat to be found. Many sat in the large casement windows of the old room on the 3rd floor of Havemeyer Hall. He immediately asked, “Is anyone taking this course?” No replies. “No, seriously, is anyone taking this course?” Nothing. “I got a call from the Registrar cancelling the course, and I said the room was full. Isn’t anyone taking this course?” Not one of us had registered. Stork recruited five of his students, and on we went. Stork was the best chemistry teacher I’ve ever had, because he thought out loud. The attendance suggested and dozens agreed. And the fact that none of us had registered, well, that was telling, too.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing, David. I had the good fortune to interview Professor Stork several years ago. He was great fun to chat with.

  3. I remember having many brief conversations with Prof. Stork in the small NMR room with the 200 MHz spectrometer in the 6th floor of Havemeyer. I was a grad student in a different group but he was always gracious, witty, and very down to earth, which readily made one forget that he was quite famous. His co-workers (mostly postdocs at the time) loved him…