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John D. Roberts, 1918-2016

Pioneering chemist John D. (Jack) Roberts of Caltech has passed away, having made it to the age of 98 (!) When I wrote The Chemistry Book a couple of years ago, I was amazed to find that he was still alive, I have to confess, but if I’d done a literature search on him I would have seen that he was publishing papers into an unusually advanced age as well. He was a huge influence on organic chemistry (particularly physical organic chemistry, the study of reaction rates and mechanisms), and was one of the key figures in realizing and applying the chemical applications of NMR spectroscopy. Among other discoveries, Roberts had the considerable nerve to advance the idea of benzyne as a reactive intermediate in 1954, showing by isotopic labeling experiments that there had to be symmetrical reactive intermediate in these systems.

If you’ve used chemical shifts and coupling constants to figure out the structure and/or conformation of a molecule by NMR, you owe a debt to Roberts. He and Linus Pauling persuaded Caltech to buy its first NMR machinery, which was, in fact, the first commercial NMR machine at a US university. (Pauling had, some years before, already told some of the NMR pioneers in chemistry not to listen to the physicists who were saying that it would probably be useless for chemical purposes). This is covered well in Roberts’ (out of print) autobiography, and you can read some about the early days in this interview at the American Institute of Physics (oddly enough, with an interviewer who seems to know no chemistry or physics).

He’s also well known for having more or less forced Caltech’s chemistry department to admit the university’s first female graduate student (Dorothy Ann Semenow), when he moved his group there from MIT. Roberts is indelibly associated with Caltech, having held many positions there over the decades (some at the same time), although he got his degree from UCLA and stayed influential there as well. He was famous for his wide range of interests in the field, his keen intelligence, and (as I’ve heard from first-hand accounts) being an extremely canny evaluator of other peoples’ work and ideas. Jack Roberts was one of the last people on Earth you’d want to try to slip any shoddy work past. Chemistry has now lost one of its last connections to an earlier era.

13 comments on “John D. Roberts, 1918-2016”

  1. Curious Wavefunction says:

    Roberts was an amazing chemist and person. He was publishing papers on conformational equilibria well into his 90s. George Whitesides is his graduate student, and both he and Whitesides exemplify what seems to be MIT’s unfortunate tendency to lose very promising chemists to other universities. Roberts’ oeuvre was enormous – spanning at least the fields of NMR, quantum chemistry, MO theory, non-classical cations, aromatic chemistry and rearrangements – and as you indicated, his emphasis on rigor was legendary. He also played a kind of supporting role in the non-classical cation controversy. He avoided taking sides but was miffed by what he saw as H C Brown’s tendency to ride roughshod over reasonable objections. At one point he compared Brown to a trucker who tramples beautiful flowers with his muddy boots.

    Jeff Seeman’s edited autobiography of Roberts is the first one I read in that series and it’s marvelous. Apart from Roberts’ accounts of his association with most of the greats of twentieth century organic and physical chemistry (Woodward, Pauling, Robinson, Cope, Dewar etc.) and photos of them, the volume is also a window into the past, illuminating a forgotten Golden Age of organic chemistry, and physical organic chemistry in particular.

  2. nitrosonium says:

    he always seemed cranky and confrontational to seminar speakers and/or presenters at mtgs. maybe that was just in his later years

  3. InfMP says:

    I just saw him at the Stanford Johnson Symposium a couple of weeks ago.
    He was still asking questions to the speakers.
    When it was mentioned that he was 98, he shouted out “that’s 1 year too long!”

  4. InfMP says:

    Seeman’s beautiful bio of Roberts is in
    Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2015, 54, 15901

  5. bad wolf says:

    A great loss! I recently enjoyed (among many other works) finding his 1961 work “Notes on Molecular Orbital Calculations” had been made available by him as free pdf from the Caltech library. Definitely a career that spanned several ages and produced top work by any standard.

  6. Dr CNS says:

    His book “Basic Principles of Organic Chemistry” with co-author Caserio was an excellent work, and made me and several of my friends fall in love with the logical nature of organic chemistry.
    In those days organic chemistry was transitioning from a descriptive to a deductive science.
    We have come a long way, baby!
    Thanks Dr. Roberts – God bless.

    1. Mol Biologist says:

      “Basic Principles of Organic Chemistry” is the best in the world literature textbooks of organic chemistry and my favorite in the college. Professor Roberts is among the most prominent American chemists, but he is also an excellent teacher. RIP.

  7. a. nonymaus says:

    I had the pleasure of working with him on conformational studies. It was perhaps an obscure and esoteric corner of chemistry, but it was done rigorously and with an eye on the ramifications of our observations on everything from biochemistry to organocatalysis.
    He was a straight-shooter who favored plain language. At one point he told me, “You can write like R.B. Woodward once you start doing chemistry like R.B. Woodward.”
    When I knew him, he had slowed down a bit from his peak. Now, he has reached equilibrium.

  8. Kazoo Chemist says:

    Way, way back when, before every Tom, Dick, and Harry had a vanity license plate, I remember that Jack’s group got one for him. California plate: “C13NMR”.

    1. Anchor says:

      @ Kazoo Chemist – The more appropriate one should have been BENZYNE!!!

      1. a. nonymaus says:

        He later actually did upgrade to N15NMR

  9. Anon says:

    I took sophomore organic chemistry from JD Roberts. We would never think to call him Jack. He put effort into the class, rarely missed a class, and this was one of the best courses I ever took. I continued to refer to his textbook so often than I had to get it rebound a few years ago after so much wear and tear. One thing I remember were the enormous wooden stick and ball models he had the chemistry machine shop make for the lectures on conformational analysis. I can still recall that introductory lecture for its clarity. Diving into C-C bond rotation in ethane and butane he made it quantitative without getting bogged down in math, made it clear, and slyly introduced ideas of activation energy and energy differences in products. Another thing he taught us was far from “not taking sides”, JD was a firm advocate of non-classical carbonium ions. It wasn’t until graduate school that I found there was even any controversy.
    The rumor at the time was that although Linus Pauling realized the potential of NMR to chemistry, Pauling was equally convinced organic chemists were not capable of using it. The organic chemists would only hurt themselves and damage the equipment if allowed to use complex instruments. Roberts supposedly had great difficulty in getting the money from Pauling to buy his first NMR machine.
    In class we ate up the heavy emphasis on spectroscopy that was present from the beginning. It immediately answered the question we always had of “how do you know that is true?” Curiously the lab course had no spectroscopy at all. Robert’s introduction to Huckel MO theory was a bit over the top. We were all struggling with quantum mechanics in physics 2c and this was so different, it was hard to reconcile the two approaches. Even after I figured out how to set up the matrixes no one had the ability to find the determinate anything larger than a 3X3 matrix.

  10. Kurt Wollenberg says:

    I worked with JD Roberts in the early ’90s on litigation between the company that I worked for vs a “mega company”, which I will not mention by name. JD was our expert witness and John Waugh of MIT was the expert witness of the “mega-company”. I remember going to Washington D.C. to meet with JD and our head litigator. We went out to dinner and had an excellent time. I was just a young NMR spectroscopist at the time working with this legend. JD was always very down to earth and treated me with respect. I remember at the time of the litigation when we were looking for an expert witness and JD was mentioned that we considered his age. We knew that JD was older and jokingly said that we hoped that he would not pass away before the litigation was completed. Well, we surely did not know JD’s longevity and that he would still be with us 20 + years later; obviously, the joke was on us. During the litigation I asked JD for a copy his autobiography and he sent me one with a nice inscription inside.

    In 2001, I applied to become a technical fellow in our company and asked JD if he could send me a letter of recommendation. It was quite late but JD told me the reason that it was late was because he was attending an Academy of Sciences meeting in NY and flew out the morning of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. He said that he was quite upset and took him awhile to get his resolve to finish his letter for me. JD did finish the letter and I am grateful to him for the letter as well as the signed autobiography.

    I remember talking to John Waugh, another legend in NMR, some years later at a NMR conference about the litigation. I told him my name and he remembered all my material that he read.

    More recently, I have been keeping tabs on JD’s web page at CalTech and telling a young spectroscopist in our group about JD and the work that I did with him in the early ’90s. So we go to look JD up on Google and find that he is still active at CalTech with students. I was amazed and quite please that JD was still going strong at 95. That was a couple of years back.
    I am now almost 60. More recently we hired a couple of young NMR spectroscopist in our lab that never heard of either JD Roberts or John Waugh. What a shame that they do not know of either of these me. JD and John are the men that were so instrumental to promoting and developing NMR to make it one of the most influential and important methods in chemistry and medicine that we now use routinely every day.

    RIP JD and I am glad that I got to know and work with you.

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