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April 2, 2001
Volume 79, Number 14
CENEAR 79 14 pp.59-63
ISSN 0009-2347
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2001 Priestley Medalist Fred Basolo, who learned to love teaching in his tiny Illinois town, is honored for his contributions to inorganic chemistry


Listen to Fred Basolo's students reminisce about their professor, and immediately it becomes clear that Basolo is a well-loved teacher. Decades after completing their degrees, Basolo's students talk about their mentor with warmth and fondness. Some of them-- more than 40 years after leaving Northwestern University--still maintain close relationships with the inorganic chemistry veteran.

SCOOT OVER Getting around nowadays is a little trickier than it used to be for Fred Basolo, 81. Dependent on a motorized scooter or a pair of canes, Basolo doesn't let advancing years and failing health stop him from making his way to his Northwestern University office every day--even Saturdays.
"Fred was always around the lab talking it up with us," remembers Harry B. Gray, who earned his Ph.D. at Northwestern in 1960. Thinking back to his graduate school days, Gray, a professor of chemistry at California Institute of Technology, says Basolo was a "hands-on" professor who developed close, personal friendships with his coworkers. "We all have a deep affection for him because of the type of person he is--because he cares deeply about his students."

In some chemistry laboratories, graduate students work closely with postdoctoral researchers on a day-to-day basis and come in contact with their advisers infrequently. But it wasn't like that in Basolo's lab, Gray says.

"We didn't have to go looking for Fred for help. He was always there giving us advice--whether we asked for it or not," Gray recalls jokingly. Then striking a more serious tone, Gray explains that Basolo was eager to see his students succeed in the lab and beyond. "He was concerned about the personal lives of his students. And he often talked with us about career choices."

BUT IT'S NOT JUST those who studied with Basolo who speak kindly of him. Colleagues, too, have no shortage of nice words and recollections to describe the 81-year-old Basolo.

"He's a very likable guy," states Ralph G. Pearson in a matter-of-fact tone. "And he's wonderful to work with." Pearson ought to know. For roughly 20 years, Pearson and Basolo collaborated closely in chemistry research. And they held concurrent positions at Northwestern from the 1940s until the 1970s, when Pearson moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is currently an emeritus professor of chemistry.

"He was just great when it came to doing service for the chemical community," Pearson says. "Fred was always serving on committees and taking on a lot of responsibilities." For example, Basolo served as president of the American Chemical Society in 1983 and as chair of the ACS Division of Inorganic Chemistry in 1970. He was a member of the ACS Board of Directors from 1982 to 1984 and was instrumental in initiating Gordon Research Conferences on inorganic chemistry.

Other seasoned Northwestern faculty members respond similarly when asked about Basolo. For example, James A. Ibers, who has been a professor in Northwestern's inorganic division since 1965, quickly offers that Basolo "has always been easy to work with. Fred's very careful about what he does," Ibers comments. "And he knows a great deal of chemistry."

Ibers' name has long been associated with Basolo's and Pearson's because of a decades-old Northwestern tradition in which the three research groups and others would gather on Saturday mornings for an informal inorganic chemistry research meeting. Long ago dubbed "BIP" for Basolo-Ibers-Pearson, the meetings are still convened weekly, and Basolo still attends.

Unlike Ibers, whose association with Basolo began when both men were full professors and in that regard academic equals, Brian M. Hoffman's earliest stories about Basolo date back to the late 1960s, when Hoffman began working at Northwestern as an assistant professor. Hoffman says Basolo acted quickly and graciously when the chance arose to work with the junior faculty member.

"Working with Fred changed my entire research career," Hoffman says. "When I came on the scene, Fred was studying dioxygen complexes of cobalt. I recognized that EPR would teach us a lot about bonding and the nature of the O2-cobalt linkage in these compounds." Basolo readily let Hoffman step in to conduct the experiments.

Then Hoffman and David H. Petering, who at the time was one of Basolo's postdocs and currently is a biochemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, proposed the next step: putting a cobalt porphyrin into hemoglobin-myoglobin to prepare a synthetic cobalt-substituted oxygen-carrying protein. Once again, Basolo was supportive, Hoffman points out. "He was happy to give us plenty of room to develop on our own."

The experiments were a success. "It was a big deal at the time. There was a nice write-up in Chemical & Engineering News," Hoffman recalls.

"It's just another example of Fred's generosity to young people," Hoffman says. Certainly Basolo's students and postdocs benefited from his mode of operation, but in this case, Hoffman explains, Basolo's goodwill was extended to a junior colleague. "It's a debt of gratitude that I'm happy to acknowledge."

Basolo's fondness for teaching stems from his upbringing. He sometimes kids fellow professors that he's probably the only one in the bunch who has certified teaching credentials. Explaining how he came to earn a degree in education, Basolo describes his childhood in the tiny, depressed southern Illinois town of Coello.

Coello (pronounced Quello) was a coal mining village with a population of roughly 300 when Basolo was born in 1920. Like many of Coello's residents, Basolo's parents emigrated from the Piedmont region of northern Italy to escape poverty and famine. Coello's only industry was shut down during the Depression, and the coal miners eventually came to live sparse, welfare-supported lives. It remains much the same today, Basolo says.

"My brother and sister, who were older than me, didn't go to high school," he says. "They had to go to work and help out during the Depression." But by the time the younger Basolo was of high school age, attending school was the norm.

"I heard the word chemistry for the first time in high school," he recalls. "We had a charming young lady for a teacher who admitted knowing very little about the subject. She had majored in home economics and probably had taken some general chemistry courses. But there was no one else in the high school to teach chemistry. So she was given the job."

The reluctant teacher opened the lab on Saturdays and supervised students who were interested in completing the lab portion of the course. "They had some chemicals and enough glassware that you could do a few things," Basolo recalls. "We read the lab book and did the experiments on our own--not being spoon-fed by the teacher." Basolo enjoyed the lab sessions and says those early experiences sparked his interest in chemistry.

The high school principal recommended that Basolo attend college. But considering that his siblings hadn't even gone to high school, and hardly anyone in Coello had ever gone to college, it took some convincing.

THE LOGICAL CHOICE for school, because of proximity and low cost, was Southern Illinois Normal in the nearby town of Carbondale. The college offered only one type of four-year degree: a bachelor of education. Basolo says his parents wanted him to complete the degree so that he would be qualified to teach high school. "High school teachers could find jobs in nearby towns for what was considered to be a pretty good salary at that time," Basolo comments. "And they had the respect of the community."

Believing that a high school science teaching position was in his future, Basolo headed off to college in 1936, where he was advised to register for chemistry classes. Southern Illinois' chemistry department consisted of just four faculty members in Basolo's day, "but they were dedicated teachers who took a personal interest in us."

One of Basolo's professors, James W. Neckers, now 98, taught analytical and inorganic chemistry and was always on the lookout for good chemistry students. Basolo says Neckers gave the enthusiastic Basolo a pep talk that shaped his future.

"He called me into his office around the beginning of my senior year to talk to me about going to graduate school. I asked him what graduate school was," Basolo recalls, laughing. Basolo says his parents supported the idea of further education even though the concept of a Ph.D. was foreign to them.

Going to graduate school at the University of Illinois seemed like "big-time stuff" to the small-town native. Urbana-Champaign had a large, impressive campus with many buildings and several distinguished chemistry professors--"giants in organic chemistry," as Basolo puts it. Yet Basolo was drawn to an inorganic chemist, John C. Bailar Jr., who taught coordination chemistry and whom Basolo describes as his role model.

"He was such a fine person--a caring individual, and an excellent teacher," Basolo says of his mentor. "I admire him for tackling an area of chemistry that he was not familiar with." Basolo explains that Bailar was trained as an organic chemist. At that time, organic chemistry was hot and inorganic chemistry was not at all popular, Basolo says. Underscoring the point, Basolo notes that of the 200 or so chemistry graduate students in his day, only six of them went into inorganic chemistry. "Choosing John Bailar and inorganic chemistry is one of the best decisions I've ever made."

Basolo completed his Ph.D. in 1943 and took a job with Rohm and Haas in Philadelphia. During his three years there, he worked on classified military projects that included preparing synthetic mica and using zirconium compounds to develop fireproof and waterproof fabrics.

"I knew that I always wanted a teaching position, and there were a lot of faculty positions available after the war." Basolo explains that he chose Northwestern because he wanted to stay in the Midwest where he was born and raised, yet, having spent most of his days in a tiny village, he wanted to live near Chicago.

Just as inorganic chemistry wasn't winning popularity contests when Basolo was a student at Illinois, the subject drew few graduate students at Northwestern when he arrived there in 1946. Basolo says he wasn't disappointed with the situation because he was hired primarily to teach. He taught the segment of general chemistry that covered elementary inorganic reactions and a junior/senior-level inorganic course.

By teaching the descriptive part of general chemistry, Basolo recognized why so many students disliked that part of the course: Typically, it called for mindless memorization. In response, he developed teaching methods that showed students how to use the periodic table to correctly predict the outcome of reactions most of the time. He published papers on the method in the Journal of Chemical Education.

The junior/senior-level inorganic course put Basolo in touch with first-year graduate students. Because so few schools offered courses of that type in those days, many of the new graduate students were weak in inorganic chemistry and were required to complete the advanced undergraduate course. "Between the class and lab, I guess a little of my enthusiasm about inorganic chemistry rubbed off on the students. I started to pick up a few students that way," he says.

That's about the time that Basolo began a long and productive relationship with Pearson. Basolo says that with much effort he convinced his Northwestern colleague, a physical chemist who was studying organic reaction kinetics, to focus on inorganic reaction kinetics and mechanisms.

MORE THAN 50 YEARS later, Pearson does not recall Basolo's prodding quite as vividly as Basolo does. Just the same, Pearson, Basolo, and inorganic chemistry experts around the globe remember the collaboration as having been particularly successful. The pair of academics attracted many graduate students, postdocs, and visiting scientists, and they published some 50 seminal research papers and a celebrated textbook, "Mechanisms of Inorganic Reactions." The two chemists enjoy much of the credit for making Northwestern one of the best schools in inorganic chemistry.

Now in their early 80s, Basolo and Pearson remain good friends. And the familiar kidding around that students say characterized the professors' relationship with one another is still good for laughs.

Just last month, for example, at the Gordon Research Conference on inorganic reaction mechanisms in Ventura, Calif., Pearson stepped up to the podium to introduce Basolo as the postbanquet speaker. "He didn't introduce me. He roasted me," Basolo corrects.

"A couple of years ago, Fred and I were nominated for the ACS award in chemical education, and Fred won," Pearson told the audience. "At first I was a little irritated until I realized that obviously he was a much better teacher than I was and therefore worthy of the award, because over the years he had taught me plenty of inorganic chemistry," Pearson said, pausing. "But I've never been able to teach him any physical chemistry."

Indeed, teaching has always been Basolo's thing. Coming from a tiny mining town where teachers were highly regarded, pursuing a college degree in education, and going one-on-one with students in the lab, seminar room, and hallways, Basolo has always been a much-loved teacher. "I think the way to reach young people is by enjoying teaching them," Basolo says. "It has to be your most important thing. You have to make it your highest priority."

Basolo's education philosophy--acquired in his youth and refined by his mentors--earned him a number of honors including the ACS George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education in 1992. "As a teacher, he's really inspirational," Gray says. "Fred just has a way of getting people really enthusiastic about the subject." But the subject isn't limited to inorganic chemistry--it includes education. Two of Basolo's children are elementary school teachers, and earlier this year, Gray won the education award that was once bestowed upon his teacher.

"One thing about Fred that is blatantly clear is that his students are intensely loyal to him," says Northwestern's Ibers. "It doesn't happen to everybody. Obviously, he's been doing things the right way for a long time."

GROWING UP "We went barefoot in the summer and saved our shoes for the winter to save money," says Basolo, shown here barefoot at age seven with cousin Aldo Basolo and upon graduating from Southern Illinois Normal in 1940.

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BIP: A Time-Honored Northwestern Tradition

Nine o'clock on a lazy Saturday morning. The perfect time for a graduate student to roll over and go back to sleep. Unless, of course, the student happens to be in the inorganic chemistry division at Northwestern University. In that case, it's time to get up and head over to the campus. BIP starts in an hour.

For more than 50 years, inorganic chemistry students at Northwestern have gathered on Saturday mornings to hold a group meeting. Once upon a time, the attendees were few in number and included just the research groups of Fred Basolo and Ralph G. Pearson, who collaborated closely for many years. But the numbers grew when inorganic chemistry professor James A. Ibers came to Northwestern in the mid-1960s. Ibers recognized that his students could benefit from attending the informal chemistry discussions, so he joined. Over the years, members of other inorganic groups also attended the meeting, further swelling the ranks.

The time-honored tradition continues today. Even the name, which stands for Basolo-Ibers-Pearson, is still used and is well known at Northwestern and in national and international inorganic chemistry circles, despite Pearson's having left Northwestern long ago. The simple acronym, which is credited to Kenneth N. Raymond--a student with Ibers and Basolo in the 1960s and currently a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley--is a little word that holds big memories for a lot of inorganic chemists.

"I remember the group meeting with fondness," says Alvin L. Crumbliss, a chemistry professor at Duke University. "Those were great times. We learned a lot."

Crumbliss says the group meetings, which evolved into BIP while he was a graduate student, were held on Saturdays because "Fred was sending us a not-so-subtle reminder that we were expected to come to work on Saturdays." Basolo concurs.

As with all cherished traditions, BIP is not without its fair share of customs. It used to be that Basolo or Pearson would call upon a student to give a research progress report--without warning. Later on, students were warned ahead of time when it would be their turn to talk about their work, but the impromptu nature was upheld by the ground rule that banned visual aids. Chalk and a blackboard were the only props allowed.

ONE-STOP SHOP Coello, Ill., is known for sausages and meats sold at its only store, Basolo's, which was run by Basolo's brother's family for many years.
"Sure, you were pretty nervous about being called on. Especially as a first-year graduate student," Crumbliss recalls. "But it was good experience and eventually the nervousness wore off."

Nowadays, a pair of student BIP masters runs the show. Appointed for one year as masters of ceremonies of a sort, the students "find the victims and let them know when their 30 minutes are up," Ibers explains. According to today's rules, two student presentations are given each week and speakers are permitted to show a maximum of two transparencies each. Students begin their talks with a short biographical sketch that identifies where they are from and where they went to school.

"BIP brings together a lot of inorganic chemists to ask questions and make suggestions about ongoing research," Basolo says. But more important, the Saturday morning meetings "give students the opportunity to think on their feet. That's a valuable experience," he adds.

Ibers agrees. "There are some circumstances, particularly in industry, when you may be called upon to give a 'chalk talk' without much warning." BIP provides a forum for giving spontaneous presentations.

By all accounts, BIP is an inorganic chemistry success story. "It's one of those institutions in this department that has worked very well," Ibers remarks. "It has really helped to make the inorganic division a cohesive group."

California Institute of Technology's Harry B. Gray is all smiles thinking back to the early days of BIP. "We had the place to ourselves on Saturdays. It was quiet and a great time to get together," he comments. "I got a lot out of those meetings." Gray adds that students particularly benefited from their science discussions with Basolo because "he had a way of getting you really interested in the subject."

OLD PALS A recent Gordon Conference on inorganic chemistry brought Basolo together with former students Gray (left) and Duke's Alvin Crumbliss (right). PHOTO BY DAVID B. RORABACHER
Crumbliss remembers things similarly. "It was really exciting to see Fred's encyclopedic mind at work. In those days, we were working on organometallic reaction mechanisms and just starting in the new areas of nitrogen and oxygen carriers. Fred had a great deal of chemistry to share with the students."

Ibers comments that one can get a good sense of the way Basolo operates as a teacher by watching him in action at BIP. "He's always very kind to students--telling them about a lot of chemistry spontaneously. Yet he keeps them on their toes in the usual pedagogical ways by easing them out of their mistakes. He has always been very effective in this way as a mentor even to students who were not in his research group."

For more than five decades, Fred Basolo has chatted on Saturday mornings with inorganic chemistry students about their research. His easy manner with students has led him on more than a few occasions to challenge young scientists to explain chemical observations or predict the outcome of reactions, often wagering a staggering 25 cents in the process.

"My limit's always a quarter," he says, laughing. "Over the years I've lost a few quarters, but by and large I've won most of the bets." It's all part of Basolo's engaging teaching style. "The kids know I'm going to ask a lot of questions on Saturday morning."

The text of Fred Basolo's Priestley Medal address, to be presented on April 3 during the awards ceremony at the American Chemical Society's 221st national meeting in San Diego, will be published in the April 9 issue of Chemical & Engineering News.

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