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.