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Ron Breslow, 1931-2017

It has not been a good week for the Columbia chemistry department, or for chemistry in general, come to think of it. Ron Breslow, who had been ill for some time, has just passed as well, following Gilbert Stork.

Breslow was an unusual organic chemist, with interests in several different areas. He ranged from physical organic chemistry to what we’d now call chemical biology, with many stops in between. Mechanisms of reactions, preparation of unusual ring structures, mimics of enzyme function, and even drug discovery chemistry are all on his group’s record over the years, and more areas besides. Very few people have made contributions in all those fields, of that you can be sure.

I enjoyed my interactions with him – he was a consultant at the first company I worked for when I got into the industry, and he did well at it, firing off a rapid stream of ideas in response to queries. He wasn’t one of the old-school consultants who delivered their opinions ex cathedra, for the little people to write down. Rather, you got the sense that he knew very well that there were more scientific problems to be dealt with than anyone could handle, and was willing to share whatever knowledge or insights he had to help others get past them. (I used to see him and Sir Derek Barton regularly back then – both gone now).

As with anyone who pushes the boundaries, Prof. Breslow occasionally found them pushing back at him. There was a problem some years back with a remote-functionalization paper whose results couldn’t be reproduced (the root of it was fakery on the part of the lab member who’d reported them). And late in his career he caused a bit of a stir with what became known as the “space dinos” paper, after a colorful line in it. The paper turned out to have a good amount of his previous writing in it, and Breslow himself retracted it (while still maintaining no wrongdoing). I think he was right about that, but right to retract it as well, since it was repetitious, to be honest. The thing is, he could have just changed up the wording more and no one would have been able to say a thing – plenty of eminent (and not so eminent) scientists get away with that and more.

Prof. Breslow also produced vorinostat (brand name Zolinza, also known as SAHA), the first approved inhibitor of histone deacetylase enzymes. The number of people who have discovered a marketed drug and also had a mechanistic intermediate named after them is very, very small. In fact, that list might narrow down to just one: Ron Breslow.

25 comments on “Ron Breslow, 1931-2017”

  1. Tin Yau Chan says:

    Definitely miss the great time when the three giants, Sir Derek, Prof. Stork and Prof. Breslow were consulting for Schering-Plough.

  2. AR says:

    I’ve been reading his enzyme mimic stuff all week, weird.

  3. NMH says:

    If enough famous people die, then I guess the Pharma giants and R1 schools will have no one to have as consultants, and no labs to dip in for what they perceive as god-given-talent *wry smile*

    I just bought prof Breslow’s mechanism book, written in 1969, just to see if it gives me more insight into understanding mechanisms when I teach Org II to sophmores as an adjunct. Watched a you tube video of him yesterday, he’s a wonderful speaker.

  4. Isodore says:

    I recall meeting him at the time he was the president of the ACS, a quarter century ago, at some meeting the NIH (or was it the NSF) had convened to solicit opinions on its policies. During a break a colleague and I were sitting at a table having coffee when he stopped by, as he knew my more senior colleague quite well. A very pleasant gentleman, I thought, chatty, informal, with a good sense of humor. Then some news reporter came to interview him (at our table) and I got a first hand look at the authoritative, eloquent, forceful head of the world’s largest scientific society. He was as conformable and competent in the public eye as e was in the lab.

  5. Karen Breslow says:

    Thank you for posting this wonderful note about our father.

  6. Curious Wavefunction says:

    Breslow was also one of the best speakers I have come across; bristling with enthusiasm, clearly fond of his students and postdoc, always looking forward to the next exciting thing. In many ways he exemplified the best of chemistry and chemists.

  7. Old Timer says:

    He was amazing at educating folks during Thursday night problem solving. I thoroughly enjoyed having him on my Ph.D. committee (along with Stork!). They will be missed.

  8. Michael TD says:

    As a chemistry graduate student at Columbia in the 80’s, my first encounter with Prof. Breslow was at faculty presentation of their research to first year student. He walked in with a model of cyclodextrin forming a complex with a molecule. As soon as he put the model on the table and said “it is not what you think”, the whole room bursted into laughter.

    I was totally impressed by how sharp he was from his presentation.

    RIP, Prof. Breslow.

    1. Anonymous says:

      I know what cyclodextrin is and what it looks like. I’ve seen numerous models (Dreiding, ball-and-stick, … space-filling). What model did he use and what did it look like that made you guys think of something funny? Doughnut? Toilet seat? Is this one of those “you had to be there” things?

      Bad stuff does have a way of lingering, but it still serves a useful lesson. Breslow had the flap about publishing negative rate constants. (No lit access.) It was, as a I recall, a case of TOO SPARSE DATA and regression to a line with negative slope, with large errors. Fritz Menger, one of my favorite mythbusters, got into that debate.

      1. InfMP says:

        probably referring to the famous abstract photo from this cyclodextrin paper:
        10.1021/ic0352250

      2. Michael TD says:

        Actually, it is the space filling model – CD and an alkane-looking molecule . . .

  9. luysii says:

    Remarkable. I always thought he was much older, as he was already a widely cited source when I started grad school in 1960. He couldn’t have been been more than 29 based on your dates.

    1. Curious Wavefunction says:

      He was 86. He was probably a widely cited source during your time in grad school because he had already done two of his most well-known pieces of work by then: the discovery of the cyclopropenium ion (the smallest aromatic system) in 1957 and the mechanism of thamine-catalyzed decarboxylation in 1958. It’s remarkable that he was only twenty six when he did this.

  10. Magrinho says:

    Prof. Breslow was a great, creative chemist and probably the smartest, sharpest person I’ve ever met and extremely supportive of his students. Also very funny.

    Breslow and Stork go all the way back to Harvard in the 50s when Stork was an Instructor and Breslow was an undergraduate. As Columbia faculty, they lived about a block apart in NJ for many years. Two different temperaments but the fact that they got along so well made Columbia a wonderful environment to be a graduate student.

    1. Curious Wavefunction says:

      Indeed. At one point the Columbia chemistry department was truly amazing; R. Breslow, W. C. Still, G. Stork, N. Turro, K. Nakanishi. Now the first four are gone (the brilliant Still who made millions and retired a long time ago now builds airplanes) and the last is not in his heyday.

      1. Michael TD says:

        And Tom Katz.

  11. David Edwards says:

    It’s perhaps indicative of the man’s influence, that upon reading this obituary, and checking out various listed molecules from the comments, even someone like myself, whose formal chemistry training ended a long time ago, can find myself quickly looking down various alleyways of knowledge, and in the process, alighting upon the weirdness and wonder that is rotaxanes.

    He’s still teaching people things, albeit by proxy, after his death.

    Which is possibly as close as I’ll ever get, to providing a eulogy for someone whose talents outweighed my own by *many* orders of magnitude.

  12. Scott says:

    Sounds like another person I wish I could have met…

    My condolences for your loss, Karen.

  13. TMS says:

    Princeton also announced on Friday that Kurt Mislow had died earlier in the Month. Organometallics had the news the day afterwards, but I hadn’t heard til this weekend.

    https://www.princeton.edu/news/2017/10/27/kurt-mislow-pioneer-stereochemistry-dies-94

  14. NSSM says:

    I also met him in one of the consultation meeting at Schering plough and he is indeed very sharp back in 2005. He is also very charming guy and would like to tell small stories and jokes during the session. One story he told is that when he went to deposit the check he received from Merck (for SAHA), the Bank teller was so surprised by the number of zeros on that check. that must be fun to watch…………..

  15. SteveT says:

    As a Columbia grad student with Nakanishi from late 74 until early 1979 I had the opportunity to take courses from Prof. Breslow, speak with him and watch in amazement as he would ask some of the most astute questions in the Thursday evening seminars as well as departmental seminars. The breadth of his knowledge was truly prodigious – yet he did not wield this ability meanly – he was the Columbia professor we were most worried about with respect to questions when we gave presentations or were defending our thesis – because he could ask you a difficult question about almost anything. Prof. Breslow was on the thesis committee as were Professors Nakanishi, Stork and Still – a true Chemistry version of the 1927 Yankees. I had the opportunity to reconnect with Prof. Breslow through the years while recruiting at Columbia and thoroughly enjoyed the chance to talk science with this remarkable man.

    1. SSG says:

      “The breadth of his knowledge” – that’s the key phrase Steve which was synonymous with that generation. Sadly missing these days where academicians hardly know or even show interest about chemistry beyond their own domain of research.

  16. Rick W says:

    It should not be forgotten that in addition to being a great scientist, Breslow was an outstanding scientific citizen. He served on numerous commissions and was deeply involved with the ACS, serving as President. He was a great example of what it means to give back, even if you are a giant!

  17. inquisitor says:

    Does anyone know which was the remote C-H functionalization that was retracted? There are several that are still available on the JACS website …

  18. Rustum Boyce says:

    Ron Breslow was an extremely versatile chemist. It was never his thing to be a natural product synthesis guy (despite his training with Woodward)- he was happy to leave that to Stork and Still. His interest was always fed by his curiosities in chemical reactivity and physical chemistry. But he brought his astuteness to solving problems in several disciplines- including medicinal chemistry – trough the discovery of SAHA.

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