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John D. Roberts: The Seattle Veteran at NOS

The Seattle conference welcomed chemists from near and far. They came from Berkeley, from Harvard, and from everywhere in between. Thirteen of the most eminent among them readied talks about their cutting-edge research, which they hoped would send everyone home inspired to further their own work.

That meeting, the 16th National Organic Chemistry Symposium (NOS), took place fifty-four years ago. This week, the gathering is in its 43rd incarnation, and it’s back in the Emerald City. So is one of the original speakers from that 1959 meeting– John D. Roberts. As a young Caltech faculty member, Roberts gave a presentation entitled “Rearrangement Reactions of Small-Ring Compounds.” It was already his third NOS talk, but he returned as a speaker several more times, collecting organic chemistry’s highest honor, the Roger Adams Award, in 1967.

John D. Roberts

Roberts in Meany Hall, venue for both Seattle NOS meetings. Drahl/C&EN

Roberts, 95, is a pioneer in physical organic chemistry and nuclear magnetic resonance (J. Org. Chem. 2009, DOI:
10.1021/jo900641t). Conference cochair Paul B. Hopkins of the University of Washington made note of Roberts’ presence during opening remarks. “I believe Professor Roberts is the only one of us in attendance who was also there at the 1959 Seattle NOS,” Hopkins said, as the crowd gave Roberts an ovation. “But if I’m wrong about that, you’ll have to let me know during the coffee break.”

Later that evening, this year’s Roger Adams awardee, David A. Evans of Harvard, started his talk by thanking Roberts, who he called “inspirational,” “my teacher,” and “my friend of nearly 50 years.” When Evans was a college student at Oberlin, the school “had just gotten an NMR, so we spent the summer poring over John’s books” about the exciting new instrument, Evans recalled. He would get to know Roberts while earning his Ph.D. at Caltech. So Roberts could attend Evans’ award lecture, NOS organizers broke with decades of tradition and moved the Adams Award Lecture, held on Tuesday nights for as long as anyone can remember, to Monday evening.

Over a cup of black coffee, Roberts told C&EN about his experiences at NOS over the years. He reminisced about some of the scientific feuds that played out at the podium, including the epic cation controversy between Saul Winstein and H. C. Brown. Asked about the history of the meeting, recently published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry (DOI: 10.1021/jo302475j), which notes a decline in talks about his field of physical organic chemistry, Roberts is optimistic. “Physical organic is not dead–it’s just been co-opted by everyone,” he says. Problems in biochemistry, which might involve enzyme mechanisms or noncovalent interactions, are often very appealing to people trained in the field, he adds.

The last time NOS took place in Seattle, Microsoft didn’t exist, nor did ubiquitous Internet. Even in this connected age, though, Roberts values face-to-face contact. “I’m always surprised that some people don’t come to this meeting unless they’re invited to give a talk,” he says. “I just like to come. You have to learn about new things.”

Roberts wishes he could have stayed for the duration of this year’s meeting, but he left to attend to an important matter at Caltech–the arrival of a fresh crop of summer undergraduate researchers.

More: Watch a video interview with Roberts conducted by chemical historian Jeffrey I. Seeman.

Read: J. D. Roberts, “The Right Place at the Right Time” in Profiles, Pathways and Dreams (Ed.: J. I. Seeman), American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C., 1990.

Read: an interview with Roberts from Caltech oral histories.

UPDATED 1:30PM Pacific 6/26 – fixed DOI link to NOS history paper.

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