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Sixty-Three Years in Chemistry: An Interview with Donald Batesky

So I wrote here about Donald Batesky, the 85-year-old synthetic organic chemist at the University of Rochester who recently published a paper in the Journal of Organic Chemistry. He contacted me afterwards, and I ended up talking to him for quite a while about his career, which has been long (clearly!) and varied. With his permission, I’m doing an entire blog post just on that – a tour through both his own experiences and through some interesting chemistry as well.

Batesky graduated from Purdue in 1954 with a B.S. in chemistry, although (as he put it) “These days I get called “Doctor” out of politeness”. He started work right out of school, as he had gotten married while heading into his senior year, and he and his wife had a baby daughter to support ickine months afterwards: “So, off to work!”. Work was found at Kodak, as a production chemist in the Synthetic Chemicals division. That had been started by C. E. K. (Kenneth) Mees during World War I, in response to the supplies of German organic chemicals being cut off, and had grown into a substantial business. The company was finding itself in need of plenty of organic chemical expertise all on its own, thanks to the growth of color photography, and assembled a large and talented team to handle the demands.

As Batesky put it to me, that high purity demands of the photography business ended up making Kodak very good at process chemistry, and the high standards helped greatly when they moved into pharmaceutical ingredients. An early one was Pantopaque (iophendylate), which was an X-ray contrast agent for the spine that was introduced in 1944. It stayed in clinical usage until the 1970s, although it was fairly insoluble and needed to be removed from the spinal fluid after X-rays had been taken, not an easy task. (Eventually, a water-soluble compound was found that was more effective, without long-term side effects in some patients). A less problematic compound was the pyrvinium cation, a dye that turned out to be a very useful antihelminthic for children and others. As originally formulated, though, it turned urine bright red, which was disconcerting – the pamoate salt was much less well absorbed, and is still in use today. (It should be noted, though, that even this compound can still have the urine side effect, as noted in this 2004 paper, which cites an “unpublished observation” which one gathers might have been one of the authors!) It should be noted that the compound has been investigated as a possible anticancer agent, so it’s a long-lived medicinal agent indeed by this point.

Working on these and other products, Batesky’s first few months, he says, consisted of hauling 22-liter flasks around a World War II-era lab. He was making $88 (about $810 in current dollars) a week, and felt that he really had the jump on many of his old classmates who had gone on for advanced degrees, since he was already earning a living. As he got more experience, his boss at the time turned him loose on other projects, and that’s where he made (and introduced as new products)  triphenylphosphine/triphenylphosphine oxide work that was the subject of his recent paper. TPPO (as mentioned in the JOC paper) was at the time being used by people concentrating uranium ore deposits in Canada and elsewhere (the Canadian government had lifted its ban on private uranium prospecting in 1947).

This takes things up to about 1960, and over the next fifteen years, Batesky’s main job was answering custom synthesis requests, of which there were no shortage. He estimates that he did about 3,000 of these, and as you’d imagine, they ranged over a huge amount of organic chemistry. Keep in mind that this was in the days when a literature search was done by hand by leafing through the bound indices of Chemical Abstracts (empirical formula, name, etc.) At this point in our interview, my own experiences finally overlapped with Donald Batesky’s, because that’s just how I had to do it when I started grad school in 1983, so we were able to commiserate about those particular old days, at any rate. He used the classic 3×5 index card method to keep up with literature references, and had a file drawer (“I wish to hell I had it now!”) with some eleven thousand cards’ worth of reactions.

He went from custom synthesis to forming a group doing scaleup work: “Kodak kept on creating work for me – it’s a funny thing; I don’t understand it”. The company would advertise a list of items in C&E News and decided what to scale up by the number of inquiries that came in. Overall, he says he had fun, except during one particular prep of ortho-nitrophenacetyl chloride (with thionyl chloride). The flask blew up, all over Batesky himself, who was rushed to Kodak’s infirmary. He was bleeding lightly from having intercepted some glass, and had been doused with the reaction mixture – except for the outline of the safety glasses he was wearing. The doctor wanted to get a picture, he says, “So he left me there bleeding on the table while he went to buy some film. I did end up becoming a poster boy for Kodak though – they used that shot in safety seminars for years“. He made a great number of liquid crystal compounds, photochromic agents, flavoring agents, watch oils, and others and remembers that period as “A ball, a circus!”

After that, he moved to head up Technical Services, answering customer queries about the product line, all the way to manning a booth at ACS meetings and dealing with questions face-to-face. He was also involved in a revamp of the whole Eastman Organics business, which was actually losing money, despite all the activity. This wasn’t really an issue for a while, since the photo business was so tremendous, but eventually this had to get straightened out, not least by converting about 1500 catalog items from “make” to “buy”. This, Batesky told me, was the market opportunity that Aldrich moved into, because Kodak had such serious back-order problems. By this time, he was out of the lab for (what seemed like) the rest of his career. He often inspected bottles of material that were heading out to customers, to make sure that things were going to make the right first impression, and ended up as Operations Manager. Kodak had some small-volume rare chemicals for orphan diseases, so he also got introduced to FDA paperwork for those and for many other bulk chemicals that he wrote the master drug files for.

The whole group, he says, had by this time formed a small business unit and headquartered themselves in another building (“Our own world to live in“), when yet another re-organization shook things up. The chemicals business was taken over (not without a struggle) by Tennessee Eastman, down in Kingsport, and at this point I had to sheepishly admit to Batesky that my own grandfather had been one of the first Kingsport employees. But Kingsport, Batesky told me, “had no idea of how to run a bottle business“, and ended up leaving a number of customers high and dry, shedding a great deal of hard-earned good will along the way.

So he took early retirement in 1991, helping to raise a grandson, but as the years went on, he eventually realized “Don, you need something to do!” He sat down and wrote Aldrich Chemicals, telling them his life story to date, and got asked to take on some work for them. At one point, Aldrich was considering acquiring a small company in Rochester itself,  and Batesky was asked to take a look at the place along with an Aldrich representative. He reported back, mentioning that “If I had the space, I’d love to make chemicals again!” (as he put it to me, “I suppose I was regretting the office move a bit“). Three weeks later, he was told that if he could find the lab space, Aldrich could provide starting materials, and he would be doing custom synthesis again. Lab space proved to be available at the University of Rochester, so he (and later two others) set out on what proved to be fifteen years of making nearly 600 new products for Aldrich.

By this point, though, management had changed at Aldrich, and “there came a parting of the ways“. The University of Rochester also needed the lab space back, so Batesky actually went back to Kodak for lab space in the last part of his Aldrich career. But when that wound down, he wondered “Is this the end of the trail?” But he had picked up a synthetic job from one of the Rochester professors who needed some synthetic work done, and ended up coming in to work “at a really cheap price – but I really enjoyed making chemicals“. He was making nickel ligands for the Weix lab until their move to Wisconsin this summer, but has continued to find projects to work on for other groups (and in fact is back to making liquid crystal compounds again).

Batesky (who by this point has outlived two wives and a girlfriend) tells me that he works seven days a week (“My bird died a couple of years ago“). He’s trying to teach by example, showing the current crop of grad students and postdocs something about how to get compounds made. He’s noticed that microscale chemistry doesn’t give people much of an opportunity to isolate, crystallize, distill, etc., and that’s just what he’s spent his lab career doing – he likes most of all being able to produce clear liquids and pure, crystalline solids and deliver them with full analytical results. But he sums up by saying “I’m doing something I love, making a few bucks. The joy of chemistry. I would be dead if I didn’t practice any more – well, that and remarrying. Love and chemicals! That’s what keeps me going“.

I really enjoyed having the chance to talk to him about his experiences, I have to say. Donald Batesky is someone who is good at his work, still enjoys doing it, and sees no reason to stop. He’s an inspiration.

20 comments on “Sixty-Three Years in Chemistry: An Interview with Donald Batesky”

  1. NMH says:

    This guy puts plenty of inactive, highly (and over) paid full professors to absolute shame. Awesome.

  2. Dionysius Rex says:

    Little compares favourably to the overwhelming satisfaction of a successful recrystallization. Extra karma points and lab kudos if you can select a good solvent first time.

  3. MoMo says:

    Here’s a shining example, all you chemists in Industry and Pharma walking around with your coffee sticking knives in your colleagues backs or clamoring for pseudo-recognition -you know who you are- of an honorable man and superb organic chemist who walks the walk, instead of posturing and talking.

    He is truly an inspiration and role model to all who have met him.

    1. Isidore says:

      You left out academia and government, I suppose because they don’t bother with knives, they use far more deadly weapons.

  4. Magrinho says:

    MoMo, it is Friday. Cheer up.

    Great story – focus on what you love and pursue it. That’s my takeaway.

  5. a says:

    This is a great story, and amazing he got to do what he loved, for so long. The rewards of a diligent and honest person

    That being said

    For all of the people whining above, there are plenty of talented people who don’t get the opportunities this guy had – and don’t think that working hard guarantees them either……

    “The solution, as I see it, is to work harder. From now onwards I shall get up a full hour earlier in the mornings. ” Boxer, Animal farm

    1. NMH says:

      Yup. Just what the pigs of the animal farm (faculty at R1 schools?) love to hear….

  6. Wavefunction says:

    What a splendid guy. I bet he has a word or two to say about six sigma.

    1. Uncle Al says:
      …”nearly 60% of all corporate Six Sigma initiatives fail to yield the desire[d] results.” giggle

      If management knows the answer, management can don lab coats and reduce to practice.
      We won’t mind.

  7. Peter Kenny says:

    I really enjoyed this, Derek, and many thanks for posting.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “clear liquids and pure, crystalline solids” indeed. And sometimes nice white foams or little piles of brown bark. I wonder if any other profession understands the joy that something that is simultaneously abstract and physical can bring as a chemist who just got the product. At the basic level, we just all like seeing the stuff we wanted to make in the flask/vial/jar, while a collection of atoms is in our mind’s eye.

  9. Mike says:

    Although I no longer do it, process chemistry was truly a fun job. Intellectually challenging, but also a hands-on job. After a few weeks of hard work you could point to a bottle and say “I made that!”. Much more satisfying than producing a paper or a powerpoint deck.

    It was also fun seeing just how much you could improve the chemistry. I can remember receiving 5 mg of a compound (usually a brown oil) from discovery and them saying “That’s all we have and it took us 4 weeks, 12 steps and 6 chromatographies to make it!”. Two months later you hand them back a jar with 1 kg of pure white crystals and tell them “I can make more in a few days. We got it down to 4 steps and two crystallizations.”

  10. tangent says:

    This was good to read. Thanks to both of you for it.

  11. BOB MALESKI says:

    I also had lots of fun in Process Chemistry at Tennessee Eastman and (now) Eastman Chemical. Good read, brought back lots of good memories since many of us in Kingsport worked closely with our Kodak colleagues supplying photographic chemicals…..

  12. J Severs says:

    Excellent story, really interesting. Many thanks.

  13. Pennpenn says:

    “Love and chemicals! That’s what keeps me going”

    Words to live by, man…

  14. Paul Brookes says:

    Never met Batesky, but Weix is a smart guy (and a sad loss for the Chem Dept. here). With all the media hyperbolae on Rochester these days, it’s good to hear a positive story about us for once!

    For those interested, I cannot recommend highly enough the book “The Disappearance of Darkness”, which is a photographic history of the decline of the photographic industry (not just Kodak in Rochester, but also Ilford, BASF films, AGFA, Fuji Film, Polaroid etc.) Lots of wonderful stories alongside the pictures derelict buildings, about the social welfare roles these companies played in their home cities.

  15. Chemistryman says:

    Great post, thanks Derek.

  16. AlphaGamma says:

    “So he left me there bleeding on the table while he went to buy some film.”

    I am amused by the idea of someone at Kodak, of all places, having to go out and buy film. Like someone at a brewery having to go on a beer run.

    I mean, it makes sense, but there’s still something funny about it.

  17. patently says:

    Great tale, and very uplifting. Thanks for sharing.

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