Skip to Main Content

ACS News

C&EN Special Issue: 85th Anniversary Of The Priestley Medal - Volume 86, Number 14, April 7, 2008

April 7, 2008
Volume 86, Number 14
pp. 62-67

Living History

These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award

To celebrate the 85th anniversary of the founding of the ACS Priestley Medal, C&EN invited all living Priestley Medalists to reflect on what winning the medal has meant to them personally. We didn't give concrete instructions. The result is an interesting potpourri of musings from some of today's chemistry luminaries.

All, of course, were delighted to receive the medal. For many, the award marked the pinnacle of a long and fruitful career. For one, the platform offered by the Priestley address presented an opportunity to try to change the way research is conducted in the country. For another, the Priestley address was scary. For most, sharing this event with their families held the most delight.

As Forrest Gump might say, this collection "is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." Enjoy.—LINDA RABER

1987: John D. Roberts

Receiving the Priestley Medal was a very rewarding experience for me, for one thing, because of my long association with the American Chemical Society, starting in 1940, and another, because more than 10 of my close friends and mentors, along with two of my Ph.D. students, were prior or subsequent Priestley Medal recipients.

Linda Wang/C&EN
John D. (Jack) and Edith Roberts

I was also pleased that the Medal honors Joseph Priestley, who is not so well-known now, except for his discovery of oxygen. Despite the scientific importance of his work, I wonder whether Priestley, as a man of many other talents, would have rated something other than his discovery of oxygen as the crowning achievement of his life.

Priestley was a natural philosopher of both chemistry and physics, a linguist in many languages, a minister, a founder of the Unitarian church, a caustic critic of the system of education in England, a passionate environmentalist, and a psychologist. But of most importance to his contemporaries was that he was an outspoken man of deep conviction and liberal thought at a time when few people were ready for such ideas.

He would surely have been right in the middle of the contemporary battles over his ideas in today's world and in the 2008 election. It was 215 years ago, when he was known as "Gunpowder Joe," that Priestley left England, where he was intensely disliked and threatened with physical harm for his unyielding advocacy of religious freedom, educational reform, and personal liberty. I am really pleased and proud to be associated with Priestley's scientific achievements and also the expression of his courage and tenacity to hold to his beliefs, no matter how unpopular they were.—John Roberts

1990: Roald Hoffmann

Dede Hatch Photography

For me the Priestley Medal was not only a wonderful recognition by my own professional society, but also a harbinger of things I would do after—of writing (and speaking) about chemistry in society and of writing of a play.

It was scary to give my Priestley Medal lecture on "Chemistry, Democracy, and a Response to the Environment," for I had not dared previously to address societal issues on which there was (and is) an inevitable difference of opinion in our chemical community—in particular, to make a case for a nonscientistic, empathetic response to ecological and environmental concerns and to environmentalists. And to argue that the essential reason for teaching, broadly construed, was not to draw people into our profession, but to enhance the citizen's ability to make decisions in a democratic society. I went on to write about education and ethics many times, but this first step out was not easy. And it was important for me.

Remarkably, I built a specific connection with Joseph Priestley only after the award. In the course of writing an essay on "The Air of Revolution" in my book with Vivian Torrence, "Chemistry Imagined," and in a play with Carl Djerrasi, "Oxygen," I learned of Priestley's eventful life, his wide-ranging natural philosophy, his exploratory way of experimenting, and his religious and political activity. Some of what Carl and I learned we worked into the play, of course. I found it instructive that this wonderful political and religious radical was such a determined conservative in his theoretical scientific views.

I am proud to have had my own professional society recognize my scientific efforts in chemistry and in reaching out in many ways through the Priestley Medal.—Roald Hoffmann

1991: Harry Gray

Rudy Baum/C&EN

I still remember the phone call from my good friend Ernest Eliel telling me that I had been selected by the powers that be at ACS to receive the Priestley Medal. It was a most welcome surprise! Could I really be joining the likes of Henry Taube, Linus Pauling, and Robert Mulliken, whose work I had learned so much from, on this really terrific list of chemists? What could I say at the awards ceremony at the Atlanta meeting? I started to worry as soon as Ernest hung up.

I had heard many Priestley Medal talks. Some were too technical, often too long and boring. (At least that was my view, likely not shared by the medalists!) Many, however, were truly inspirational. I had particularly enjoyed the talks by Roald Hoffmann, George Pimentel, Frank Westheimer, and Jack Roberts, as I felt that their take-home messages were right on the mark. I hoped to do as well, so I decided to talk about all the fun I had had doing both chemistry research and teaching and to recognize lots of people who had supported me. I'm not sure how well I did, but I greatly enjoyed the ceremony with other award winners in what has become a very special evening for all chemists.

I have been hopelessly in love with chemistry all my life, so you can imagine what winning the highest honor of my society has meant to me. It follows me everywhere I go, and when I am introduced as a Priestley Medalist, I know I better have something to say because I am representing thousands of dedicated chemists who are members of our great organization.

In my view the 21st-century chemistry enterprise is really booming, ranging from brilliant syntheses of long-sought materials to breathtaking measurements of the properties of highly energetic species that live for less than a trillionth of a second. As we approach the end of the first decade of this century, we know for certain that we have many challenging chemistry problems to solve, especially in the areas of renewable energy and human health, and we must recruit the best and brightest young people to join us in what will surely be one of the greatest adventures in human history.—Harry Gray

1992: Carl Djerassi

Marc Reisch/C&EN
Djerassi (right) and Henry Whalen

Strange as it may seem, given my age and my ACS membership for more than six decades, I have always felt as an outsider in U.S. chemistry circles. Thus, receiving the Priestley Medal seemed to me more than just recognition for longevity, and I have always felt grateful for this gesture. It is even possible that these warm feelings were reflected in the manner in which Roald Hoffmann (another Priestley Medalist) and I depicted Priestley in our play, "Oxygen." No wonder the Priestley Medal is now even mentioned in theater programs—presumably a first for both ACS and the theater world.—Carl Djerassi

1996: Ernest Eliel

Peter Cutts Photography

I was certainly very pleased and proud to receive the Priestley Medal. The Board of Directors of ACS, of which I was a member from 1985 to 1993, is the selection committee for the medal, so I was involved in the selection of several previous Priestley Medalists.

There were many excellent nominees each year, and so the competition was intense. Thus, I was delighted to be one of the medalists some years later.

ACS has a number of prestigious awards in all fields of chemistry, pure and applied, including, among others, the Roger Adams and Arthur C. Cope Awards in organic chemistry and the George C. Pimentel Award in chemical education (which I received the previous year). But the Priestley Medal is a comprehensive award for merit in all these areas of chemistry and others.

As president of ACS in 1993, I substantially furthered the international interactions of ACS with other chemical societies worldwide. Prior to 1993, ACS's interactions were mainly with other chemical societies in the industrialized world. Since then they have been extended to the entire world, notably to Eastern Europe, China, India, and several Latin American countries.

On the personal level, recognition provided by the Priestley Medal has helped me receive a number of other honors, such as membership in many other chemical societies. It has helped me to get to know a number of outstanding chemists all over the world.—Ernest Eliel

1997: Mary L. Good

First, the telephone call that told me I would receive the next Priestley Medal was received in my hotel room in New Orleans, where ACS was holding a national meeting. I was unprepared for the call and overwhelmed that my colleagues would find my career credentials worthy of the Priestley Medal when many former recipients had been Nobel Prize winners and major contributors to the chemical enterprise. I'm sure my response to the caller (whom I believe was Dr. Nina McClelland, chair of the ACS board) was not appropriate because I was so stunned by the announcement. I think this episode indicates the impact of the receipt of the highest award that ACS can bestow on a member.

Ernie Carpenter/C&EN
Good (right) with Paul Anderson

For me the medal has compensated for all the hours that I have spent in my life on ACS and chemical affairs. My original interaction with ACS was as a graduate student, when I was commissioned by my local section to attend and report back on a regional ACS meeting in 1950. Since that first introduction to the society, I have been intensely involved at all levels of ACS both in governance and in the scientific activities of the society, primarily in the Division of Inorganic Chemistry.

However, I have received as much from the society as I have given. My scientific work was enhanced by my participation in meetings and my papers in ACS journals. My students progressed toward professional careers though their presentations at ACS meetings and their ability to follow their science through meetings and journals. Thus, ACS was a major player in my progression through the academic ranks at Louisiana State University System.

My activities in local section projects paved the way to my national ACS governance positions, including ACS president and chair of the ACS board. In fact, these activities, especially those associated with the ACS board, were instrumental in my being offered a vice president for research position at UOP in 1980.

In addition to these issues affecting my career, my years in ACS activities provided many, many friends and colleagues who have enhanced my quality of life in many ways.

From this background you can understand the impact of the Priestley Medal on my subsequent career and my life. There is no better award than that given by one's colleagues—it refutes the old adage that one is never recognized in your home country!—Mary L. Good

1999: Ronald Breslow

Peter Cutts Photography

The Priestley Medal is particularly important because it recognizes so many of the areas in which chemists can make contributions. Most other medals are essentially focused entirely on research. Of course, Priestley Medal winners have usually done pioneering research that breaks new ground, but the medal also recognizes the role that winners have played in educating students and in promoting the image and reality of the field of chemistry. For the industrial winners, it also takes note of their contributions to human health and the economic strength of the U.S., as well as their roles in the professional development of chemists in their fields and their organizations.

I am proud of the students whom I have helped educate, who have gone on to distinguished scientific careers, and I am also proud of the science we have done together. I am proud of the contributions of chemistry to human welfare and scientific understanding. I have worked hard to promote respect and admiration for our field. For me winning the Priestley Medal was an endorsement of my efforts to make a contribution to the field that has brought me such joy.—Ronald Breslow

2000: Darleane C. Hoffman

My receipt of the Priestley Medal in the millennium year 2000 was especially meaningful to me because the national meeting and awards ceremony were held in San Francisco. This made it possible for my immediate family, many former and current students, local colleagues and friends, and participants in the meeting to attend.

Mitch Jacoby/C&EN
Hoffman (left) with the late Glenn Seaborg

I expressed my feelings at the time in my opening remarks relating how astounded I was to receive a call late on an April Saturday afternoon from John Crum informing me on behalf of the ACS Board of Directors of the good news. I was busy preparing dinner for a family gathering, as our daughter, Dr. Maureane Hoffman from Durham, N.C., had just arrived, and the rest of the family, Drs. Daryl and Susan Hoffman and our three grandchildren from across the Bay were due to arrive momentarily.

When the phone rang, I assumed that they were calling to say they would be late or that it was some solicitation call. I almost hung up when I heard an unfamiliar voice. When I finally realized who it was, I assumed I had been called by mistake and the call was intended for a male colleague whom I had helped to nominate. After all, I am a nuclear and radiochemist, and very few of us these days receive this kind of broad-based recognition (We are not a popular species except for Glenn Seaborg!). I am also a woman, and Mary Good, the first and only woman to be so honored, had just received the medal in 1997.

When John finally convinced me that I had been selected to receive the Priestley Medal, I was, for once in my life, nearly speechless. I finally managed to express how pleased and honored I was that ACS thought my lifetime contributions and service to chemistry in general were sufficient to merit the highest award that ACS can confer. Although I was the first woman to receive the Award in Nuclear Chemistry from the ACS Division of Nuclear Chemistry & Technology (1983), was elected to the Norwegian Academy of Science & Letters (1990), and received the National Medal of Science (1997), this recognition by my peers in chemistry as a whole as I was approaching 75 years old, was a truly heartwarming validation of my contributions and career-especially because I was not a member of the U. S. National Academy of Sciences.

It was particularly meaningful to me personally that my only granddaughter, Sarah Hoffman, then only 10 years old, attended the banquet and remained awake and interested during the entire ceremony and my rather long address! I spoke at the end about the great progress women have made during the last century and predicted that in the new millennium women would soon garner a share of ACS awards commensurate with their numbers and outstanding contributions to chemistry. Unfortunately, the fraction of awards to women is still disturbingly small. It will take much time and effort on the part of all of us to achieve that goal, and I hope that I can contribute to the undertaking.—Darleane Hoffman

2002: Allen J. Bard

Marsha Miller/U of Texas, Austin

The Priestley Medal is usually awarded rather late in one's career, so it usually doesn't have a huge impact on one's personal or scientific life. It did serve to inform those who knew little about my research, like many of my departmental colleagues and my family, that maybe I was doing something interesting after all. More important, it served as tangible recognition of the labors and achievements of my research group, who did the lion's share of the work that was the basis of the award. Of course, it was a great honor to be recognized by colleagues in ACS and to have my name associated with Joseph Priestley and all of the other outstanding scientists who have won the award.

The award has the added benefit that it allows one, in both the oral address at the ACS national meeting and in the published written form, to pontificate on issues in contemporary science with the hope (but not the expectation) that it might do some good. In my address in 2002, I discussed problems in the funding of science by federal agencies and the growing culture that forced scientists to spend large amounts of time in seeking (most of the time unsuccessfully) funding. Aspects of this were dealt with very well in the later report from the National Academies, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm."

Unfortunately, the situation today is worse than it was in 2002. Many of my younger colleagues are pretty demoralized, and there are no clear indications that it is about to change for the better any time soon. I was very fortunate to have spent most of my career under conditions where research had the recognition and support needed to develop a first-class establishment and to have been able to encourage young people to choose careers in science and engineering. Let us hope we return to those halcyon days before they are irreversibly lost.—Allen Bard

2004: E. J. Corey

One of the most satisfying aspects of receiving the Priestley Medal for me was the receipt of a very large number of letters and e-mails from many friends, colleagues, and former coworkers. Their heartwarming words and good wishes were a source of much delight. I tried to acknowledge them all, and that brought pleasure, too. My interactions with the staff of ACS were both helpful and enjoyable.

Pamela Zurer/C&EN

I generally try to minimize diversions from my studies, teaching, and research, but in truth, that was not an issue with the Priestley Medal because it was not at all time consuming or burdensome. I spent less than a day with Maureen Rouhi, who had the responsibility of writing a profile article for C&EN—and that was well worth it because we became good friends in the process.

It took less than a day to write a requested account of my career, scientific contributions, and my vision of the future of the chemical enterprise. I tried to write as clearly, concisely, and factually as possible. For this, I was also rewarded by many kind messages from friends and also from a large number of young people who found inspiration in my words. A recurring comment was that after reading the whole article, the reader promptly reread it. Although this can be interpreted in two very different ways, I choose to believe that the readers found it to be worthwhile and interesting.

The awards banquet in March 2004, also attended by my wife, Claire, and other family members, was an unforgettable experience, thanks again to ACS staff and officers. The audience at the Priestley Medal address in Anaheim were very appreciative. They laughed at the things that I had hoped would be funny, almost as if on cue. For an inexperienced after-dinner speaker, it cannot be better than that.

Long after the award address, the title of which was "Impossible Dreams," I was asked whether I had in mind that 2004 would be THE YEAR for the Boston Red Sox, who had been in the habit of disappointing me (among others) since the mid-1930s. In truth, I did feel that 2004 would see their success, as indeed happened. Could it be that the Priestley Medal brings good luck? I remember a Nobel Foundation member telling me in Stockholm in 1990 that the Nobel Prize opens doors. I think I prefer good luck.

I am deeply grateful, now as then, to have been selected as the 2004 Priestley Medalist, especially because I know that there are many others who are at least equally deserving. I am also pleased to have received the award because it acknowledges the wonderful work of my collaborators over the years. At age 85 the Priestley Medal has many interesting years and stories ahead.—E. J. Corey

2005: George A. Olah

Mitch Jacoby/C&EN

During my whole career in chemistry, I have been fortunate to be able to do research on a wide variety of topics and projects both in industry and academia. My work received increasing recognition, including the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for my studies in hydrocarbon and carbocation chemistry.

My present work concerns a new approach to gain independence from fossil fuels (oil, gas, and eventually coal), which are not only getting scarcer but also, upon their combustion, produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that greatly contributes to global warming. With my colleagues, I have developed feasible chemistry to transform—and thus chemically recycle—CO2 to methanol and/or dimethyl ether and subsequently to varied products now obtained from oil and natural gas. Our proposed "methanol economy" also makes carbon-based fuels recyclable and offers a way to significantly mitigate the effect of excessive CO2 in our atmosphere contributing to global climate change.

Of all the recognitions I have received for my work, the ACS Priestley Medal ranks very high in my estimation. It represents recognition by my peers and colleagues in ACS, of which I have been a member for more than 50 years. It also gives me inspiration to continue my research and to help my younger colleagues in the development of their careers. Priestley, I am sure, would be pleased that ACS is not only honoring through this medal his memory but also that it is helping to encourage continued progress and development of chemistry.—George Olah

2006: Paul S. Anderson

Peter Cutts Photography

To be selected as a recipient of the Priestley Medal was, of course, a great honor. It was particularly gratifying for me because it symbolized recognition of my mentors, Robert Lyle and Ralph Hirschmann, and the achievements of many other scientists with whom I had the privilege of working over the years. My wife, Jane, and I were particularly pleased that Bob and Ann Lyle, as well as many colleagues from Merck & Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb, were able to join us at the awards banquet in Atlanta. I was also fortunate to be able to review what I planned to say in the Priestley address with Ralph Hirschmann, who is a neighbor.

Scientific achievements in industry are frequently the result of a team effort. This is particularly true in the pharmaceutical industry. Drug discovery and development is an effort in which an interdisciplinary team brings a diverse array of necessary knowledge and skills to the complicated mission of making a new medicine. At Merck, DuPont, and Bristol-Myers Squibb, I was fortunate to have opportunities to work with great teams of talented scientists who were deeply committed to finding new medicines that would improve health care around the world. I was also fortunate to work for companies that understood the value of having employees participate in external activities that supported growth and advancement of the professions in which they were trained.

This was a great time to have been doing chemical science because gains in knowledge and subsequent applications for the creation of valuable new products were spectacular. The federal investment in science and technology that was made after World War II did what it was designed to do. It stimulated and promoted our ability to create and use new scientific information to advance the health, prosperity, and security of our nation. One can only hope that we will not forget this valuable lesson because the world is becoming even more dependent on science and technology as people seek ways to make our planet safer, healthier, and cleaner. Certainly, chemistry will continue to be central to how this happens.—Paul Anderson

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award

Save/Share »

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


Save/Share »



Our log-in process has changed. You need an ACS ID to access member-only content.



Questions or Problems?

Adjust text size:

A- A+

Articles By Topic

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award