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Nobel Prize brings back memories of late chemistry professor

October 8, 2010

Faculty in Colorado State University's world renowned chemistry department shook their heads and once again mourned a lost colleague Wednesday when the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was announced.

Opened up new worlds to organic chemists

John Stille, one of the first University Distinguished Professors, discovered the Stille Reaction, which played central stage in what the 2010 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was given for. Photo courtesy of Skillman Photography.

Had he lived, John Stille most likely would have been among the names read by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, giving Colorado State University its first Nobel Prize. Stille, one of the first University Distinguished Professors at Colorado State, perished July 19, 1989, in the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa.

On Wednesday, the Royal Swedish Academy announced the Nobel winners were Richard Heck of the University of Delaware, Ei-ichi Negishi of Purdue University and Akira Suzuki of Japan's Hokkaido University, who will share a $1.5 million prize. They were honored for their contributions to a family of reactions, among them one that was developed by John Stille and was henceforth known as the Stille coupling.

Likely prize winner had he lived

Colorado State University Professor Bob Williams studied under Negishi as an undergraduate student. Even Negishi told Williams Wednesday that Stille would have likely captured the prize, Williams said.

“I was ecstatic because Negishi was my undergraduate research advisor,” he said. “But it also reminded us that had John Stille been alive he would have gotten the Nobel Prize. If you look in the Science Citation Index, the number of citations for the Stille Reaction are enormous – about 12,500.

“Any organic chemist knows that the Stille Reaction really played central stage in what this prize was given for,” Williams said.

World's foremost synthetic polymer chemist

Stille ranked among the world’s foremost synthetic polymer chemists. He began teaching at Colorado State in 1977.

Stille and the late Professor Al Meyers are responsible for shaping CSU’s Department of Chemistry into what it is today, said Ellen Fisher, current department chair. Fisher joined the department in 1993 after Stille had passed away.

“These chemists discovered that they could use metal-based organic compounds to speed up reactions, but also essentially get new types of carbon-carbon bonds,” Fisher said of the Nobel winners. “When you have really large compounds with different functional groups, it’s often difficult to get them to bond together. The Nobel Prize winners discovered a new way of combining organic molecules by using palladium catalysts and dramatically increased the ability to do different types of organic synthesis.”

'Chemical kickstarter' compounds now used broadly

The 2010 Nobel winners will share a $1.5 million prize. Professor Stille likely would have been among the winners had he lived.

These compounds are now used broadly in pharmaceuticals, particularly anti-cancer drugs and blood pressure medications. Stille and his colleagues discovered they could use palladium catalysts to affect all kinds of reactions and one of those includes polymer synthesis, including the synthesis of conducting polymers, which are now being used in the solar cell industry.

“These compounds are very effective at improving basic organic synthesis reactions - palladium catalysts really aided many of these processes and it truly opened up a whole new world for synthetic organic chemists,” Fisher said.

USA Today on Thursday described it as a “chemical kickstarter.”

Groundbreaking work on campus

“John Stille's work on the reaction that bears his name was groundbreaking work, conducted in his laboratories at Colorado State University in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Professor Tomislav Rovis, who is the current John K. Stille Chair in Chemistry at Colorado State. “Developments over the following two decades have been significant in all areas connected with this prize.

“The three scientists who ultimately shared the prize were strongly deserving of the honor, but I cannot help but think that the committee's decision was made easier in many ways by the untimely death of John Stille along with the recent death of another pioneer in this area. Sadly, we will never know what could have been,” Rovis said. “To have pioneers in your field, scientists whose contributions you respect, recognized with this, the highest honor in science, is wonderfully rewarding. To also be associated with the name of the man that could have shared this prize is flattering. I am thrilled for my field but also for Colorado State University, and for the fine science done inside these walls by our students.”

Posthumous honors continue legacy

Stille was awarded the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award posthumously by the American Chemical Society in September 1989 – one of the highest honors in organic chemistry. The organization also created the John K. Stille Memorial Symposium.

At Colorado State, the University created the John K. and Dolores Stille Symposium, a biannual event focused on topics within organic chemistry, after Stille and his late wife. The next symposium will be in 2011, Fisher said.

Top 50 graduate chemistry program

U.S. News and World Report recently named the graduate program in chemistry at Colorado State University one of the top 50 programs in the country. The ranking was included in the 2011 Edition of America’s Best Graduate Schools, which was released this summer. More

The chemistry department is a Program of Research and Scholarly Excellence at Colorado State. Research Ph.D. programs are available in analytical, inorganic, organic, physical, and materials chemistry as well as chemistry education. Interdisciplinary programs of study that cross traditional boundaries are encouraged and many faculty members have joint appointments in engineering and life sciences departments across campus. The department’s total grant expenditures exceed $7 million annually.

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