I-APS Awards: Nicholas J. Turro
The presentation of the IAPS Award in Photochemistry to
Nicholas J. Turro at the 3rd IAPS Winter Conference provides
the opportunity to reflect upon his scientific and personal
accomplishments. While such reflections are often written
upon the occasion of the retirement of a distinguished
scientist, in this case we celebrate the high noon rather
than the twilight of a career, as those who had the good
fortune to listen to his award address can readily attest.
Still it is an appropriate time to look back - Nick having
recently completed a half century of life and a quarter
century at Columbia - and to look forward.
Nick was born in Middletown, Connecticut on May 18, 1938.
His grandparents were Sicilian and Neapolitan immigrants
whose families settled in Middletown in the early part of
this century. After graduation from Middletown High, Nick
entered Wesleyan University, a highly-selective,
predominantly undergraduate, and all-male institution. His
interest in science was sparked by his high school teachers.
Messrs. Bowles and Murphy, sustained by the Wesleyan
chemistry faculty (including Profs. Gilbert Burford, Jose
Gomez-Ibanez, John Sease, and Don Sebera), and enlivened by
clandestine experiments with pyrotechnics. Summers were
spent in the state of Connecticut Water Testing Laboratory
working alongside his friend and mentor, the late Peter
Leermakers, who graduated from Wesleyan two years before
Nick. Nick graduated summa cum laude in June of 1960 and
followed Peter to Cal Tech. Both were graduate students of
George S. Hammond at a time when the mysteries of
photochemical mechanisms were being unraveled by a
remarkably able group of graduate students and postdocs in
the Hammond laboratory. In the short period of four years,
Nick completed his Ph.D., a year's postdoctoral with P.D.
Bartlett at Harvard, the test of his influential first book,
"Molecular Photochemistry", and joined the faculty at
Upon arriving at Columbia in 1964, Nick rapidly attracted a
large and talented group of graduate students and postdocs.
Recognizing the power of the methods of chemical physics in
the study of photochemical reactions, he soon had a lab
equipped for flash photolysis and single photon counting.
Carbonyl photochemistry in homogeneous solution was the
subject of much of the group's effort; however, mechanisms
of non-photochemical reactions such as the Favorski
rearrangement and the thermolysis of dioxetanes were also
elucidated. Nick's interest in potential energy surfaces for
photochemical and chemiluminescent reactions led to a
fruitful collaboration with Lionel Salem and Bill Dauben. A
second text, "Modern Molecular Photochemistry", used the
concept of energy surfaces to present a powerful general
theory of photophysical and photochemical processes in
nonmathematical terms. In recent years his group has
employed a combination of photochemical reactions and
chemical dynamics to study non-homogeneous environments such
as micelles and zeolites and to probe the structures of
synthetic and biological polymers. The Turro group's
contributions to the scientific literature now number 470
scientific papers and 4 patents.
It was my good fortune to join Nick's group as a postdoc in
1968. My first assignment was to read a thick black binder
containing 100 key papers dealing with mechanistic
photochemistry. Subsequent assignments included abstracting
journals for an annual review of photochemistry and
presenting my analysis of papers at marathon group meetings,
which occasionally ran for a full day and included visiting
scientists. We were also encouraged to produce experimental
results by frequent visits to the laboratory and suggestions
for new experiments (known in the group as "why-don't yas").
His rapid appearance and disappearance from our laboratories
earned him the apt title "Nick-the-Flash". He challenged his
students scientifically, intellectually, and even physically
- when a student was willing to take up his challenge on a
basketball or squash court. Nick's reputation as a scientist
and mentor has attracted 150 graduate and postdoctoral
students from the US and abroad. A hallmark of these
students is the breadth of their training and interests.
Nick's contributions as a scientist and educator extend well
beyond the walls of Columbia University. He has served as
organizer and continuing participant in the Gordon
Conference on Organic Photochemistry and the IUPAC Symposium
on Photochemistry. His enthusiasm, search for simple models
and colorful use of language (who can forget a term like
"roach motel") make his lectures at these and other
conferences memorable, particularly for young scientists
hearing him speak for the first time. He is always quick to
congratulate others on the quality of their science and to
offer suggestions or propose collaborations. He has served
on number editorial and scientific advisory boards. These
contributions have been recognized by numerous awards,
including the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry and Arthur C. Cope
Scholar Award, James Flack Norris Award, DOE's Ernest O.
Lawrence Memorial Award, an honorary D.Sc. from his alma
mater, and election to the National Academy of Sciences.
No description of Nick's career would be complete without
mention of his family. Nick and Sandy met in kindergarten
and were married following graduation from college. Group
gatherings always included Sandy, who found time even while
raising their two daughters to take an interest in Nick's
students and their families. Now that their daughters are
grown, Sandy frequently travels with Nick and has become the
official photographer of Turro group reunions, which occur
at most photochemistry conferences.
Nick's many friends rejoice in his accomplishments. We look
forward to his continued contributions to photochemical
science and count upon his continued leadership and
Frederick D. Lewis
(F.D. thanks Sandy Turro for material)