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Ei-ichi Negishi, 1935-2021

Earlier this month, organic chemist Ei-ichi Negishi died at the age of 85. I missed this event (I wasn’t posting during those few days) so I wanted to note it here, because Negishi was a huge name in the field. There’s a Nobel prize to back that statement up (Chemistry, 2010), and plenty of other awards as well. But si monumentum requiris, circumspice: the sorts of metal-catalyzed couplings that he spent his career working on have become indispensable tools in organic synthesis, and the field is still an active area of research. Carbon-carbon bond formation is a high-denomination coin in organic chemistry, as are high-turnover catalytic methods, so the amount of interest (both academic and industrial) in these reactions is not surprising. The number of compounds that have been made by now through these routes is just not feasible to even start counting.

As his Chemistry World obituary notes, Negishi actually left a press conference about his Nobel award to go teach a sophomore organic class, and I don’t think anyone who knew him well would be surprised to hear it. He had a legendary work ethic (retiring from Purdue, where he spent nearly all his career, only two years ago). Interestingly, he had been a postdoc with H. C. Brown, who later was Purdue’s first Nobel winner. That work ethic extended to his lab – stories I’ve heard over the years made clear that Negishi expected people to be at the bench solving problems, and his field of research gave them plenty of opportunities. At the same time, he also had a reputation for approachability, for students of all levels, and shared his expertise freely at all times.

The metal-catalyzed coupling reactions have been developed to the point where it’s hard (read: impossible) to keep track of all the possible reactions, conditions, and substrates. There are a lot of variables that can be explored, and the detailed mechanisms of the reactions can change on your depending on the metal used and many other factors besides. But when optimized, they can be run on very large scale in a reproducible way. My own graduate training in the 1980s took place when this sort of thing was just starting to come into better focus, and it really did seem like having some sort of magic powers to be able to form all these compounds through stitching together actual carbon-carbon bonds. Organic chemistry students now come up in a world where these things are facts of life, but that Nobel (which also went to Richard Heck and Akira Suzuki) was well-deserved and frankly, well overdue. One of things that might have delayed it was the 3-awardee-maximum requirement; there were many others who had made serious contributions to the area, because it was such a huge field to work in.

No Nobel since has been awarded for new synthetic organic methods. We’ll see another one eventually, but by the time it happens none of the living Nobel winners in that field may still be with us.


12 comments on “Ei-ichi Negishi, 1935-2021”

  1. Larry says:

    The Negishi Coupling was a key reaction in my graduate research back in the 90s and worked beautifully. RIP Prof. Negishi.

    1. Tom says:

      I echo this statement, one of the key reactions (if not THE key reaction) was a Negishi coupling, after a few minor tweaks it worked like a charm!

  2. Jordan says:

    It’s interesting to compare the Chemistry World obituary with the one in the NYT:

    The picture painted by Jim Tour’s comments in the Times is not quite as flattering as what is portrayed in Chemistry World.

    1. a says:

      *This* jim tour?

      the one who has “optional” prayer meetings in his group where the entire lab joins hands and prays in his office? the one who is a creationist?

      of all of negishi’s students, this is who the nyt chooses to ask?

      negishi might an oldschool hardass – and probably abusive, but at least he wasn’t deranged by religion.

      1. Anon says:

        “Dr. Tour will initiate a private Zoom call with anyone who is not a believer in Jesus but would like to hear his story about how he became a man with faith in Jesus, the Son of God. If interested, send Dr. Tour an email to make the request.

        If you are a believer in Jesus and you wish to meet regularly, one on one via Zoom, to read and discuss the Bible, Dr. Tour can arrange for that through a team of Bible college students wishing to serve in that way. If interested, send Dr. Tour an email to make the request”

      2. M says:

        ….wow. That was a trip to read. Yikes.

      3. mallam says:

        One week in this lab as a grad student and I’d have immediately contacted my second choice to ask if there was an opening, or simply get out totally of chemistry.

  3. Thomas Lumley says:

    Typo: that’s “monumentum”

  4. silane says:

    He was my professor for second semester advanced organic chemistry and organometallic chemistry (from the organic department side) when I was in graduate school in the 90s. He was a good person and expected his students to work hard in the lab. It seemed to me he enjoyed being the storyteller, sometimes class would seem to have more stories than schoolwork. He told this one story about how his lab invented the Tebbe’s reagent before Tebbe and co-workers if not for his diligent students. They tried the same reaction and worked it up the next day to find no reaction, so they moved on to other reactions instead of “going home for the weekend like those industry type” to explain the 60 hour reaction time for the reagent to form.

  5. John Wayne says:

    I met him at a National Organic Symposium. In a group conversation one of my friends told him that they had just used his coupling conditions and it had worked great; professor Negishi bowed slightly and thanked her for using the reaction. He was a class act.

  6. Daen De Leon says:

    Tiny, tiny, tiny correction: the correct quote is “si moNumentum requiris, circumspice”.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Dang it, I can’t believe I fat-fingered that one. I’ve even stood in front of that inscription inside St. Paul’s! Thanks. . .

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