How To Reach C&ENACS Membership Number


August 12, 2002
Volume 80, Number 32
CENEAR 80 32 pp. 39-43
ISSN 0009-2347

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THE CHEMIST responsible for establishing a strong research tradition in chemistry at the university was William J. Pope (1870–1939), who became 1702 professor of chemistry in 1908.

“Pope shaped the department in the early years of the 20th century, and he made some important discoveries,” Archer says. “He established that asymmetric centers in optically active compounds could be elements other than carbon, such as nitrogen, sulfur, and selenium. He also demonstrated that compounds without asymmetric centers can still be optically active. His research on phosphine and arsine was, in a way, a precursor to the coordination chemistry work that came later in the department.”

A contemporary of Pope’s at Cambridge, Thomas M. Lowry (1874–1936), also worked on optical activity. In 1898, he discovered the phenomenon of mutarotation. Lowry, who became the first professor of physical chemistry at the university in 1920, is better known, however, for his proton transfer theory of acids and bases. He introduced the theory in 1923 simultaneously with, but independent of, the Danish chemist Johannes N. Brønsted (1879–1947). According to the theory, acids and bases are substances consisting of molecules or ions that donate and accept protons, respectively.

Following Lowry’s death, Ronald G. W. Norrish (1897–1978) was appointed professor of physical chemistry. He carried out wide-ranging research on photochemistry and reaction kinetics, especially on short-lived transient species. In 1945, George Porter joined Norrish’s group as a postgraduate research student. Their collaboration on the use of flow techniques and short light pulses for the study of gaseous free radicals produced in photochemical reactions and combustion continued until 1954 when Porter left Cambridge. Norrish and Porter shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1967 with Manfred Eigen at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry, Göttingen, Germany, for, according to the Nobel citation, “their studies of extremely fast chemical reactions, effected by disturbing the equilibrium by means of very short pulses of energy.”

One of the greatest holders of the 1702 chair, according to Archer, was Lord Alexander R. Todd (1907–97). He moved from the University of Manchester to Cambridge in 1944.

“He brought with him a group that inevitably became known as the Toddlers,” Archer says.

Todd was particularly interested in the chemistry of natural products, for example, vitamins B-1, E, and B-12; the constituents of cannabis species; and insect colorants. In 1957, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on nucleotides and nucleotide coenzymes. Todd was also president of the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry from 1963 to 1965.

“Todd was a huge presence at the university in every respect,” Archer says. “When he arrived in the department, which was then still on Pembroke Street, the facilities there were out-of-date, so he persuaded the government to build a new laboratory for the department.”

The new university chemical laboratory, on Lensfield Road, was formally opened by Princess Margaret on Nov. 6, 1958

“In the rapidly changing world of today, I wonder just what exciting advances will be made over the next 300 years. This is a great time to be a chemist.”
The current holder of the 1702 chair is Steven V. Ley. “The main emphasis of our work is the discovery and development of new synthetic methods and their application to the synthesis of biologically active molecules,” Ley notes. His group is engaged in the synthesis of many large and complex natural products such as rapamycin, an immune suppressant; spongistatin, a potent antitumor agent; and azadirachtin, a potent insect antifeedant.

Earlier this year, Ley’s group achieved the first total synthesis of (+)-plicamine, a complex natural product, using a combination of supported reagents and scavengers to effect all the synthetic steps [Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., 41, 2194 (2002); C&EN, June 17, page 26].

(+)-Plicamine is an Amaryllidaceae alkaloid; many members of this family of alkaloids exhibit potent biological activity including antitumor, immunosuppressive, and analgesic activity. Alkaloids in this class have also been shown to inhibit various cell-cycle mechanisms and HIV-1 activity, and have found recent application in the therapeutic treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, the group notes.

“Our work is special in that 13 carefully selected immobilized reagents were used to give a clean product without the need for conventional workup or chromatographic procedures,” Ley tells C&EN. “This is remarkable given the complexity of the problem.”

Sanders observes that the chemistry department today is also strong in atmospheric chemistry and kinetics. “Our world-leading expertise in understanding atmospheric science and climate change can be traced back directly to the early fundamental work by Norrish and Porter,” he says.

Research at the university’s Centre for Atmospheric Science, which was founded by the chemistry department in collaboration with the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics, includes modeling fundamental atmospheric processes, developing and deploying instruments to measure atmospheric constituents, and measuring the rate constants of atmospheric reactions in the laboratory.

Other research strengths of the chemistry department range from chemical biology and nanotechnology to the more conventional areas of chemistry, such as structural chemistry, surface science, and heterogeneous catalysis, Sanders notes. His own work includes research on dynamic combinatorial chemistry.

VICTORIAN By the 1940s, the university’s old chemical laboratory on Pembroke Street had became congested and inconvenient to run.

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Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

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Total synthesis of plicamine
[C&EN, June 17, 2002]

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Cambridge University

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