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I-APS Awards:  Gerhard Closs

When accepting the 1992 IAPS award in Florida earlier this year, Gerhard Closs claimed that he was not really a photochemist (although he did trace his association with the field to an infamous Gordon Conference on Organic Photochemistry in the mid 1970's). Many of his peers in the audience disagreed, including myself. In fact, it is difficult to come up with the names of other chemists (aside from previous winners of the IAPS award) who have had more of an impact on the field of organic photochemistry in the last decade. Electron transfer rates, triplet energy transfer rates, and the kinetic and magnetic properties of biradicals are all subjects of primary importance to photochemists. These areas defined the research program of the Closs laboratory for the 80's and they extend into the 90's with gas phase energy and electron transfer studies. Going back to the 60's and 70's, the forging of the link between magnetic resonance and photochemistry through studies of carbenes and the CIDNP phenomenon was a consequence of Gerhard's desire to maximize the knowledge extracted from a single experiment. Organic photochemistry would have some major gaps to be filled were it not for Gerhard's systematic, quantitative approach to science.

Gerhard was born on May 1, 1928 in Wuppertal, Germany. Wuppertal is famous for an incident involving a circus elephant and a monorail car, and if you run into Gerhard you should ask him to recount that story for you. The details of his education are by now well known, his Diplom Chemiker was obtained in 1953, and this was followed in 1955 by a PhD working in Georg Wittig's laboratory at Universitšt Tubingen. Future spouse and coworker Lilo was also a Wittig graduate student. From Germany, Gerhard arrived at Harvard in 1955 to do postdoctoral work in the laboratory of R.B. Woodward. It is interesting to note that his two publications with RBW were spaced some thirty years apart, yet the topics in both papers were the total synthesis of natural products (chlorophyll and chlorophyll a). In between those two synthesis papers, Gerhard has managed to squeeze in some high quality physical chemistry of a few decidedly unnatural products!

A phone call by RBW led to Gerhard becoming an assistant professor at the University of Chicago in 1957, where he has remained throughout his career. For his outstanding research accomplishments and his dedication to the University, Gerhard was named the A.A. Michelson Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry in 1974. Other major awards he has received include the Jean Servais Stas Medal (Societť Chemique de Belgique, 1971), the James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry (American Chemical Society, 1974), and the Arthur C. Cope Award (American Chemical Society, 1991). He has been internationally recognized with 13 named lectureships, 5 of them at institutions outside of the U.S.A. Presently, he is serving a three and a half year sentence as Chairman of the Chemistry Department at Chicago.

A scholar in the truest sense, Gerhard set a high standard for the papers that left his laboratory. A consequence of this is that he has never been much of a "numbers" man when it comes to publications. Slightly more than 130 papers have appeared with his name on them, and the scientific quality of each and every one of them is staggeringly high. One Closs student from the early 1970's summed it up best with a heartfelt thesis acknowledgement, saying that Gerhard taught people "the true meaning of excellence in science". Most, if not all, of his students share that thought.

I would like to include in this sketch a few "vintage Closs" moments from my graduate student days. The first of these occurred when Gerhard's NSF program director was on a site visit to Chicago and was being given an extensive personalized tour of the laser laboratory. While my back was turned, Gerhard, inadvertently of course, placed his finished cigarette in my soda pop can, leaving no trace of its presence. I proceeded to take a large gulp out of the can about one minute later. Somehow, I avoided spraying soda pop and ash in their faces (I held on for a 50 yard sprint to the men's room) and Gerhard got his renewal, but to this day I never let my soda can out of my sight!

Several times an instrument in the Closs laboratory was opened up for repair to find that the culprit was one of Gerhard's butts, or a pile of ashes. He just loved finding a little nook or cranny to squeeze one out in. His favorite was the recorder on the Varian EPR spectrometer, the bottom of which I once cleared out ten butts from (a record perhaps?). Once, he caused some real excitement when one of his lit butts landed in the sink, directly following a half liter of acetone! Lighting his cigarette in the focused beam of the excimer laser was another favorite crowd pleaser.

Gerhard is one of the best teachers I have ever encountered. One morning, he lost his notes for a classroom lecture in graduate physical organic chemistry, and gave the entire lecture from memory without missing a beat. He is a teacher of sound chemical principles. The real pleasure was not to be taught in the classroom, but one on one at the blackboard, by Gerhard. It was there that you learned so much, including an appreciation for his direct, quantitative style.

The best piece of advice ever given on challenging Gerhard's opinion about anything came from Nancy Green, a Closs student in the mid 1980's, who said "go think about it some more before you say anything, because he's always right". As usual, he was. He is a most deserving winner of the IAPS Award in Photochemistry. Congratulations, Gerhard, and we all look forward to the next decade of "excellence in science".

Malcolm D.E. Forbes
Bowling Green State University



 

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