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.