Big Al's Tribute

Feb. 20, 2007, is a date that some inorganic chemists might say will live forever in infamy. That was the day when F. Albert Cotton, an inorganic chemistry professor at Texas A&M University, passed away. Cotton was, simply put, the most influential inorganic chemist to ever have lived. cotton1.jpgI qualify that accolade by noting my professors and every other inorganic chemist I have ever come across have said the same thing. And I say it while remembering how I spent the better part of my undergraduate and graduate training toting around, reading, memorizing, and referencing Cotton’s seminal textbook, “Advanced Inorganic Chemistry,” which he coauthored with his own professor, Geoffrey Wilkinson at Harvard University. The inorganic community was shaken after Cotton died, not only because we lost an icon but also because the circumstances of his death were unusual. Although 76, Cotton was a man still full of vigor. I remember the last time I saw him. It was the ACS spring national meeting in Atlanta in 2006, and he was giving a talk using an overhead projector. Professor Cotton may have been the last person to ever give a talk at an ACS meeting that way. Cotton reportedly suffered a severe injury in a fall at his home, and he passed away some four months later. Some say he might have been murdered, but a police investigation could only conclude that his death was “suspicious.” That’s all water under the bridge now. Once they were over the initial shock, the natural instinct of Cotton’s current and former students, postdocs, and colleagues from a career that spanned 50 years was to hold the biggest and most exciting ACS symposium possible in his honor. That symposium is taking place this week in New Orleans. It includes 47 talks in seven sessions held over four days, with the speaker list being a veritable who’s who of inorganic chemists. Before the first session began, the lecture hall was aflutter with a kind of activity not usually seen before a 9 AM start on a Sunday morning at an ACS meeting. A couple dozen inorganic chemistry elder statesmen were standing about the podium, meeting and greeting one another—good friends, chemistry rivals—all buzzing about what was old and what is new. Some of the younger members of the crowd, eager for the talks to begin, sat deep in their chairs toward the rear of the lecture hall. Several of them had their noses in the March 17 issue of C&EN, flipping through the meeting program. Others stared down into coffee cups, perhaps looking for a little wisdom after a late night down on Bourbon St. At last, chemistry professor Richard D. Adams of the University of South Carolina, Columbia, one of the symposium’s coorganizers, cleared his throat into the microphone: “We are here today to honor the memory of F. Albert Cotton,” Adams said. “Al made innumerable contributions to organometallic chemistry.” Adams went on to point out that Cotton started his career with investigations on the chemistry of ferrocene at Harvard in the 1950s. Cotton also championed the use of X-ray diffraction as a method for structural characterization in inorganic chemistry. “But the topic he loved the most was the chemistry of metal-metal bonds, which he started in the early 1960s and continued up until his death,” Adams said. Tobin J. Marks, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University and a coorganizer, continued the heartfelt memoriam. “This is a bit unusual because I never imagined before now what it would be like to come to an inorganic session at an ACS meeting without seeing that little guy bouncing into the room, sitting in the front row, looking intensely at a speaker while throwing out some tough question,” Marks commented. “It’s really a profound loss that I feel personally. He touched all our lives. Another way of saying that is he was always there for us.” ACS President Bruce E. Bursten, a former Cotton postdoc who now is at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, took the microphone. During his remarks he made an important clarification: “It has been said that Al was the greatest inorganic chemist of the 20th century, but the truth is he was one of the greatest chemists of the 20th century.” Bursten went on to list some of Cotton’s accomplishments. He mentioned the ACS Award in Inorganic Chemistry, of which Cotton was the first recipient in 1962 at the young age of 31. Bursten also cited the ACS Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Inorganic Chemistry, which Cotton received in 1974, again at the young age of 43. Cotton also received the 1998 Priestley Medal, ACS’s highest honor. But Bursten emphasized one of Cotton’s lesser known accomplishments, that of receiving the Pimentel Award in Chemical Education. “That accomplishment is what truly adds luster to his greatness,” Bursten observed. “It’s surreal to be at an ACS meeting and realize that Al is not going to come walking through that lecture hall door,” he continued. “It’s a loss for all of us.” Bursten concluded by introducing Cotton’s wife, Dee, who ventured to New Orleans for the symposium and received a rousing round of applause. And as F. Albert Cotton would have liked it, Adams promptly introduced Marks as the first speaker.

Author: Steve Ritter

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