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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 Columbia University.

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 friendship.

Frederick D. Lewis
Northwestern University
(F.D. thanks Sandy Turro for material)


© 2013 Inter-American Photochemical Society