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Chemistry professor brings researcher's work to life

September 1, 2011

"When Robert Burns Woodward passed away in July 1979, he left behind 699 pages of hand-written notes in a neat stack in his top desk drawer."

University Distinguished Professor Robert Williams helped bring a former mentor's research to lifeThat’s how Robert Williams, a University Distinguished Professor in chemistry at Colorado State University and recipient of the 2011 Ernest Guenther Award in the Chemistry of Natural Products, begins his article on a former mentor.

An unfinished life

Williams helped publish the unfinished work of Woodward - a former Harvard professor and Nobel Laureate – for the scientific journal Tetrahedron. The project involved multiple professors from several institutions who collaborated to document the important work left behind by Woodward.

The journal article was published in August.

“Only two papers were published by Woodward in this area; the vast bulk of his ideas in this field, were deprived of ever having been experimentally tested,” Williams wrote. “One cannot help wondering had Woodward lived longer, what advances he might have pioneered in this field. This article, and the accompanying scanned images from his notes, give an amazing glimpse of Woodward’s thought process, creativity, and deep intellectual gifts that characterized his brilliant career.”

Woodward a brilliant scientist

To read a detailed story about the lengthy process to publish Woodward’s unfinished work, go to the American Chemical Society.

Today@Colorado State interviewed Williams about the unique project:

Who is Robert Burns Woodward and how did you know him?
R.B. Woodward was a Nobel Laureate (1965) in Chemistry and Professor at Harvard University. I was a post-doc in his lab (1979-80) after I graduated from MIT. I am also best friends with his youngest son, Eric Woodward, who was my roommate in college.

How did you get involved in this project to publish his papers?
As a friend of the Woodward family, they approached me (as a chemist) to evaluate if there were any ways to patent or commercialize ideas in the notes.

Who are the two researchers who actually published the report? How do you know them?
Mike Cava was a former Woodward graduate student and his research associate M.V. Lakshmikantham wrote most of the paper. I approached Cava to write the paper as he had expertise in conducting organic materials (an area outside of my own expertise). They both passed away before the paper was published.

Roald Hoffman, one of the other co-authors, is also a Nobel Laureate who worked with Woodward on the conducting materials ideas. He is still alive and is a Professor at Cornell.

What's the chemistry involved here - in simple terms?
The chemistry Woodward was trying to conceptualize was to design organic compounds that could conduct electricity efficiently.

Is it the same kind of chemistry research you do at CSU?
Not at all. I study significant problems in the general area of biological chemistry, particularly those concerning the synthesis and biosynthesis of natural products, cancer and multiple drug-resistant bacterial infectious diseases.

Contact: Emily Wilmsen
Phone: (970) 491-2336