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Alfred Bader, 1924-2018

You didn’t hear much about Alfred Bader in recent years – he was elderly, retired, and moreover, his company (Aldrich, later Sigma-Aldrich) had in recent years dropped the Aldrich name from its public branding and now operates as MilliporeSigma. But if you’re at all connected with organic chemistry in the second half of the 20th century, you know Aldrich. Bader himself has now died in Milwaukee at the age of 94.

He had quite a story. Bader was born in Vienna in 1924, and at 14 was sent to England (along with many others his age) to escape persecution. (His adoptive mother died in the Nazi camps, so this concern was extremely well-founded). In 1940 he was sent on to Canada, and he studied there at Queen’s – McGill’s quota for Jewish admissions kept him out of that university. He went on to Harvard for graduate work with Fieser, and afterwards found himself working in the chemical industry in Milwaukee.

That’s where he became aware of the problems of fine chemical supply. Bader himself told this story many times as he recounted the Aldrich history, but the problem was that the business was largely at the mercy of big industrial firms like Eastman Kodak, who supplied as their own overstocks allowed. There were some smaller regional players (such as Max Gergel’s Columbia Organic Chemicals) but Bader saw the room for a big supplier that could handle a big inventory. He started out by buying up compounds from all over the place – industry and academia – and repackaging them from a Milwaukee garage. By the time someone my age encountered Aldrich Chemicals, though, they were the unquestioned behemoth of North American laboratory chemical supply (and had merged with Saint Louis’ Sigma in the 1970s, who specialized more in biochemicals and reagents). The Aldrich catalog was a big, thick paperback brick and a reference work all in itself for things like melting and boiling points, densities, and so on.

There were around 50,000 compounds in there for sale, ranging from most common industrial chemicals all the way to the Sigma-Aldrich Library of Rare Organics, academic samples gleaned from university departments and available in rather small quantities. Everyone ordered from Aldrich, while complaining about their prices (which could often be beaten) but not so much about their range of offerings (which usually couldn’t be). That catalog was my constant companion from my undergraduate days all the way up into my industrial drug discovery life, being gradually displaced by its online equivalents and competitors.

Bader himself lost his position in 1992 in a corporate shakeup, but that left him more time for his art collecting and philanthropy. The Aldrich catalogs (and the accompanying Aldrichimica Acta, which ran short useful review articles highlighting reactions using reagents that the company sold) always had Old Master style paintings on the covers with brief notes on the artists and the history of the paintings themselves. Bader was a very wealthy man indeed later in his life, and spent a good amount of time spreading that wealth around to a long list of causes. His passing is yet another end of yet another era.


43 comments on “Alfred Bader, 1924-2018”

  1. JSR says:

    I learned as much from Aldrichimica Acta (both about chemical reactions and art) while in grad school as from any other single source.

    Bader’s was a life well lived. May his memory be a blessing!

  2. loupgarous says:

    The Sigma-Aldrich catalog was as much an educational resource as the chemistry texts we had at LSU. The Biochemistry department there would leave old copies of Bader’s catalog on the hallway floor for students to scavenge, and I made off with a few.

    1. loupgarous says:

      Looking back, Sigma and Aldrich were separate entities (but even then merging) in the 1970s when I started collecting Aldrich catalogs and Aldrichimica Acta, as much for the art as the encyclopedic list of chemical compounds and their prperties/

      It was the next decade at Louisiana Tech I’d get “Sigma-Aldrich” catalogs. Even Bader’s commercial work was a public service.

  3. Duncan Bayne says:

    > McGill’s quota for Jewish admissions kept him out of that university.

    A good example to point to, when discussing the matter of quotas with advocates of same.

    1. steve says:

      There’s a big difference between quotas to keep minorities out and quotas to allow minorities in. What should be kept in mind, however, is that anti-Semitism and racism are once again rearing their ugly heads in the US and in Europe.

      1. Indeed. A mere 70 years after we were naive enough to think antisemitism banished from the face of the Earth, the “oldest hatred” is proving resilient as ever. Witness the Labor party in Britain, riddled with it like Swiss Cheese; and the curse of intersectionality here in the USA, with the Women’s March poisoned with antisemitism from day one.

        May our memories of Al Bader ז״ל be a blessing to us all.

        1. Louis says:

          [Aside: Be a little careful with the UK Labour party thing. Whilst the anti-semitism certainly exists in some quarters (confusingly, and obviously erroneously, bundled with criticism of Israeli foreign policy as often as not) it is extremely over blown by a largely (UK version of) right wing media as part of the smoke and mirrors surrounding Brexit. A lot more noise than signal, unfortunately. Gets in the way of really rooting out the genuine anti-semitism. Ironically. Anyyyyyaway…]

          I will second the wider themes around the passing of Bader and the Sigma Aldrich catalogue. I have kept most of mine, they were (and are) an invaluable resource. Well thumbed, occasionally stained (although whenever I could have an office and a lab copy, I would), and used more than many suspect. I have a mug, I have a tie, but most importantly (and I hope other people remember this too) I have a deodorant.

          I bought it for a colleague who was…something less than fully hygienic…but never had the chutzpah to leave it on his desk. I kept it as a souvenir as I suspected it would vanish from the catalogue (as I seem to remember it did).

          Sigma brand deodorant from the back of the catalogue for the more odoriferous lab colleague!

          1. Nick K says:

            Sorry, I have to take issue with your description of anti-semitism in the Labour Party. I know several people active In the BDS movement and the Momentum faction in Labour who use their supposed concern for the Palestinians as a handy alibi for their deep-seated hatred of Jews.

          2. Nick K has it right, Louis. As a start, I suggest reading this précis:


      2. Shazbot says:

        Dunno. Either way you’re judging applicants by racial and economic backgrounds. Doesn’t seem like that’s the path to equality.

        1. Hap says:

          If things were done to people because of race or culture, though, reversing them without reference to race or culture seems unlikely and difficult. It’s sort of like not trying to recover stolen property after a rash of thefts and saying “We’ll do better next time.”

          Without some sort of standard, it’s also hard to know if people are honestly trying to make processes fair or if they are just ignoring the unfairness and hoping it will go away (or more cynically, hoping to make the unfairness an unspoken and permanent part of the process).

  4. Anonymous says:

    Some of the stories I have read: The name “Aldrich” was chosen for the original company by a coin toss that chose the maiden name of Bader’s partner’s wife (over Bader’s wife’s maiden name).

    I did have the pleasure of chatting briefly with Bader at a couple of seminars.

    I had read that Aldrich’s very first product was MNNG (methylnitronitrosoguanidine), a precursor to diazomethane. The multigram prep of MNNG was an undergrad lab experiment at Harvard, before things went to microscale, of course. Fieser ran the undergrad lab. Each semester, the pooled multigram batches of MNNG were sent off to Bader to repackage and sell.

    If you were to try to start an Aldrich today, operating out of a garage and transporting chemicals by regular post, you wouldn’t get to square one. Well, you’d get to square one if square one was prison! I haven’t heard any stories about Aldrich that come anywhere close to Gergel’s Columbia Organic Chemicals stories. Maybe it was the lack of Harvard connections.

    I had a nearly complete set of Aldrichimica Acta (hard copy) from Vol 1, No 1 until the present but I had to make room for more junk by getting rid of old “junk”. No one wanted them, so they ended up in the dumpster. Over the years, I sent in some suggestions to Charles Pouchert, the guy in charge of the Aldrich IR Library (book) and NMR Library (book) and labware. Aldrich started selling one of my suggestions but they did not publish it either as a lab note (I picked up lots of clever tricks from those notes) nor as a new product suggestion. I didn’t even get an Aldrich coffee mug out of it (but I still have copies of the correspondence)!

    The Aldrich motto: “Chemists Helping Chemists in Research and Industry.”

    I was an undergrad where there were plenty of spare copies of the Aldrich Catalog floating around, so I had my own, early on: a valuable resource and an interesting read, just to see what was available and its approximate cost. Back when used book stores were more common, I would sometimes see an Aldrich Catalog for sale for a few bucks and get a chuckle out of it!

    The DIGITAL Aldrich Catalog first went “public” via sci.chem. I had been in correspondence with Aldrich tech support about helping “us” (chemists) and helping them (paying for less paper) by making an electronic catalog available. The tech guy got permission to send me a searchable text file which was used internally at Aldrich. Whoosh! Researchers in the department would come to me to help to search for properties or Reg Numbers or formulas or partial names (“aldehyde”). The availability of that e-resource spread to sci.chem and others were soon requesting the file from Aldrich. Clinton Lane supported its distribution at first but then put a stop to it. Finally, several years later, the on-line searchable catalog became available.

    Another story that I had heard was that it was an aspect of Bader’s philanthropy that got him in trouble with the Board or at least became an excuse to give him the heave-ho. Bader used to give away some of his personal SIAL stock, such as when visiting chem depts or on lecture tours. (I worked for a PI to whose research program Bader donated a small amount SIAL stock. In order to SPEND it, it had to be liquidated, so the university grants office (that officially accepted the stock) had to sell it.) By giving away his stock, some of which was liquidated by the recipients, the Board argued that Bader was harming the company. You know, like when a crooked CEO tries to dump his own stock without making the proper disclosures. SIAL was booming and Bader was not enriching himself (financially) by giving away his SIAL stock but I think it was used as an excuse to get rid of him.

    I wonder if Bader can be considered a sort of Jeff Bezos of his time?
    Bader started with just a few chemicals, expanded to bio, chromatography, lab equipment, BOOKS, etc.
    Bezos started with just a few books, expanded to clothing, electronics, etc.

    1. Dr CNS says:

      I still am a proud owner of the coffee mug you describe. I got it for free when I spotted an error in the molecular weight of a reagent in their catalog and wrote to them about it. (Yes, i used to double check my stoichionetry calculations before starting a reaction). They thanked me by offering a copy of the 3-volume NMR catalog, now in my basement and rarely used. I wrote back saying “keep the books, send coffee mug instead”. They sent both.

      1. Istvan says:

        DiazAld Kit – the one and only (was)!

  5. Fluorine Chemist says:

    R.I.P Alfred Bader. May his memory be a blessing!
    “Everyone ordered from Aldrich, while complaining about their prices (which could often be beaten) but not so much about their range of offerings (which usually couldn’t be).”
    To the above, let me add “quality”. In case or organometallics (lithiums, grignards, catalysts), it was universally agreed that no one could beat Aldrich. This could be extended to deuterated solvents too! During my time in the US (PhD and 2 postdocs) we used to order organometallics and deuterated solvents ONLY from Aldrich.
    Oh yeah, the Aldrich catalog was one of the best sources of reference. Many times I have used it to build my own customized glassware!
    Derek, as usual, well written and very informative!

    1. Dr CNS says:

      How about the anhydrous reagents under the “SureSeal” name? That septum system was quite useful….

      1. Fluorine Chemist says:

        Yes, that SureSeal was just too good! And if you maintain the solvents properly, they stored pretty well!

  6. Scott says:

    Ah, the things you could get away with before people got all paranoid.

    Sounds like quite the man, and someone I wish I could have met.

  7. Peter S. Shenkin says:

    I still have a copy of the Aldrich Catalog (2005-2006 edition). It has survived multiple purgings of my bookshelves. I think I will have it until I die.

    1. Annonned says:

      Before I was laid-off I had a small bookcase with an old Aldrich, Fluka and other catalogues. Some had really good reference tables. There were several people in our group who constantly told me to throw them out because they were outdated. Then I became outdated and soon afterwards the whole site became outdated.
      I still have some of the Aldrich covers.

    2. Anonymous says:

      We used old Aldrich catalogs to invalidate patent applications for compounds under the “on sale in the US” doctrine at the date of filing. New catalogs wouldn’t work. The few times I called companies to request old catalogs were met with laughter.

  8. Harry says:

    RIP Alfred Bader. He was good friends with my former boss Elmer Fike (which is also where I met Max Gergel).

    I only spoke with him a few times by phone, but he was always gracious and cordial.

    There are almost none of that generation of chemist-entrepreneurs left today. We’re poorer for it.

    1. Anonymous says:

      ELMER FIKE: I had to look him up. He makes Max Gergel look good by comparison. I’ll include one link in my handle and paste others, below.
      Some snippets:
      Friday, Feb. 9, 2007. NITRO, W.Va. (AP) — Elmer A. Fike, the founder of the former Fike Chemicals who also was a political activist and critic of government regulation, has died. He was 87.

      (He sold his plant and then it was closed in 1986 and then) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the property a Superfund site in June 1988.

      Fike frequently criticized the EPA’s involvement and what he believed was governmental interference with private business.

      After his daughter Martha was killed in a traffic accident in 1966, he campaigned for highway safety laws, including mandatory seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws. (??? Isn’t that governmental interference with private business??? When it harms him or his family, REGULATE IT! When it harms others, regulations are interference!)

      “Maverick Chemist Creates Huge Headache for Environmental Agencies”
      Remove the spaces: 1988-12-18/ news/

      “Saga of a Waste Cleanup: 12 Years and Counting”
      Remove the spaces: 1988/ 10/28/us/

      And some others.

      1. Hap says:

        It’s sort of hard to support garage chemical businesses because of stuff like this – people aren’t very good about cleaning up their messes unless they are forced to, and bankrupting innocents (at least of this) for a previous homeowner’s mess seems like a bad thing to do.

  9. Tin Yau Chan says:

    I can recall, in the late 1980s, people from Aldrich combed through the research compound collection of the late Prof. Stork. There were sightings of Alfred Bader himself from time to time.

    1. Old Timer says:

      I remember when Prof. Stork opened up his Wittig/HWE reagent cabinet to anyone in the department. There was a frightening number of complicated phosphonium salts that I thought would be better served in the Rare Compound Library than in another lab continuing to collect dust.

    2. Anonymous says:

      I think Prof. Stork knew Bader when Stork was teaching at Harvard and Bader was a graduate student. Bader occasionally stopped by.

  10. Alfred and his wife Isabel philanthropy touched so many lives, a legacy that continues shaping our culture and society!

  11. Victor Lee says:

    I recalled Bader and his wife visited the Dyson Perrins Laboratory years ago. He was nice and our store manager really got on well with him.

  12. dsp says:

    One says, “There’s a big difference between quotas to keep minorities out and quotas to allow minorities in.”
    Is there, indeed? The Asians of Harvard could not be reached for comment.

  13. Uncle Al says:

    I was at Occidental (Petroleum) Research in the 1970’s. There was a problem. Fat Freddy said,
    “Let’s call Dr. Bader.” It is a defining moment in one’s life. Decades later, absent the good Dr, Aldrich dripped snot.

    “Lady in Black” and “The Alchemist.” Dark reticulated Supelco mugs were used status. Aldrich mugs were trophies. When Heaven needs diazomethane….godspeed Dr. Bader.

  14. exGlaxoid says:

    I was lucky enough to meet Alfred Bader (as well as Max Gergal, who was a hoot) a couple of times. Both were great entrepreneurs of their times, the science equivalents of the Silicon Valley startup founders we hear so much about today (perhaps too much).

    He was a wise and nice man, who loved art and chemistry with nearly equal passions, from what i could see, and who created one of the best businesses in chemistry. Sadly, much of his virtue is lost on the current MIllipore Sigma EMD behemoth.

    Condolences to his family and to everyone who loved chemistry.

  15. An Old Chemist says:

    Long long ago, in the old days, Al Bader used to visit the chemistry department at Harvard, go around meeting students and postdocs, and ask them which new chemical Aldrich could start having in its catalog. If the idea was meritorious, he would reward the student with a Fieser’s triangle for drawing structures, which was all we had to draw structures before Chemdraw. He was often seen gong around the department with Mary Fieser, likely because he got his Ph. D. with Louis Fieser (a legend at Harvard chemistry department before Woodward arrived there).

    1. Michael TD says:

      Ditto that. I was a chemistry grad student at Columbia in the 80’s. One day I was working on some reactions in the lab. Al Bader came in and introduced himself. But I wasn’t sure who he was since I was a foreign student. A postdoc in the lab told me later that he was the guy who started the Aldrich. Saw him a few more times after that.

  16. Alfred used to visit our lab several times a year when he owned Aldrich. He had a beat-up leather briefcase that contained prints of his paintings that he gave out. I assumed that aspect of his collection, which was also used on the covers of Aldrich catalogues, made the paintings a business expense for tax purposes. Alfred was surprise us with his visits and my students didn’t know who he was. They chatted with him as he asked what chemicals that weren’t in his product line could he add to the company. He also asked how Aldrich could do things better. I mentioned that UPS wasn’t licensed in Canada and so his chemicals were getting stored in Buffalo and then transferred to a local carrier, causing long delays. Alfred said he would fix the problem – UPS has been trying to get a licence for Canada for years. Alfred said he knew the chair of the agency that gives out the licences. He told the fellow that the lack of UPS was holding back science. Within a few weeks, the chemicals were coming in on UPS. I called the head of UPS and explained what UPS owed to Alfred. Every time I saw Alfred after that, he thanked me for letting him know about the problem. Since Isabel had been a student in our university, they visited frequently after they were married. Alfred always wanted to use public transit to go wherever he could and avoided taxis. He was proud to tell me that he used a transit pass from a conference in Winnipeg to get to the airport. His also sold me both of his books with considerable pressure and a “special discount.” He was the ultimate salesman and scientist combination.

  17. Nick K says:

    I loved the old Aldrich catalogue, and used it constantly for melting and boiling points. The Aldrich catalogues of NMR and IR spectra were invaluable too.

  18. Stanislav Radl says:

    He was a great person and I am proud he called me a friend. I helped him to establish several stipends for Czech students in prestigious Universities (Harvard, Pennsylvania University, Columbia University, and Imperial College) as well as several awards for Czech young chemists. He and his wife Isabel used to visit us in Prague each year, but his health conditions prevented him to travel last years. In December, I sent him and Isabel, as usual, a New Year greetings…

    1. milkshake says:

      I got Alfred Bader scholarship, to go to Harvard

  19. Hap says:

    He came to give a talk a CAS about fifteen years ago, and it was interesting to hear him. Chemistry talks with actual organic chemistry (how he started with Diazald, for example) are nice.

  20. Patrick Harran says:

    Like Professor Kluger, I was also the recipient of artwork from Dr. Bader’s briefcase. He was a very gracious man. I was a student in New Haven when he visited to lecture on Josef Loschmidt’s ‘underappreciated’ contributions to early structural chemistry. It was such fun, and so educational. It evolved into a debate with Mike McBride on how Loschmidt drawings should be interpreted. 27 years later, I remember the talk like it was yesterday. Al Bader was one of a kind.

    1. Anonymous says:

      (McBride story: A visiting speaker put up a slide with a large matrix relating to — I forget the whole story — molecular orbitals or crystal structure or something similar. McBride, junior faculty at the time, interrupted “Shouldn’t that be a 0 over there?” Many were amazed that he had digested and analyzed this complicated mathematical gmish and quickly found a mistake. After the seminar, it was pointed out that such matrices are supposed to be symmetrical and McBride’s eye had simply picked up an obvious asymmetry.)

  21. Iatrochem says:

    I remember him passing out prints of art…some still hang in my office
    he tried to get my PhD mentor to date his sister,
    he was a Renaissance man-

  22. doc says:

    I think the most recent example of the breed was Dr. Richard Haugland, of Molecular Probes- the company that made fluorescent molecules (Texas Red, anyone?). He started the company in 1975, in his kitchen, in Minnesota with his wife Rosaria. Along with Dr. Richard Spencer of SLM, his was one of the two enabling technologies of early fluorescent probe work (the SLM spectrometer was the other, a beast of a machine). MPI moved around (I think there was a little bit of the flavor of Max Gergel in some of his earlier locations, at least insofar as unfriendly business climate and regulations were concerned) and wound up in Eugene OR. MPI was a shrewd user of SBIRs, one of the few. The company was acquired by Invitrogen and eventually others. Following Bader’s example, MPI was also quite generous to researchers.

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