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Cover Story

October 9, 2006
Volume 84, Number 41
pp. 14-15

Human Element

Richard The Lionheart

Bethany Halford

The biggest danger when writing about a great person, particularly one as charismatic as Rick Smalley, lies in using your words to paint the portrait of a god, rather than a man.


Ask his friends and colleagues to help you humanize the late nanoscience pioneer, and you'll most likely get a quip like the one Smalley's longtime Rice University colleague Robert Curl gave me: "You might want to talk to one of his ex-wives. There are three of them for you to choose from."

You'd think such a successful man would be embarrassed by so many failed marriages, but Smalley didn't shrink from his reputation as nanoscience's Elizabeth Taylor. He embraced it.

Once, during a press conference at the University of Houston, a woman tiptoed behind him and covered his eyes with her hands. "Guess who?" she whispered. Smalley bellowed, "One of my ex-wives?" When the mystery woman removed her hands, he got an eyeful of Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Smalley loved to tell that story.

A month after Smalley won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovery of buckyballs, those cheeky kids at Rice voted him Homecoming Queen. Did Smalley bristle? No, he put it on his curriculum vitae. In the Fellowships, Awards & Prizes section. Right underneath the Nobel Prize. It's still there on his website.

Scores of family, friends, and colleagues fiercely guard Smalley's memory. That he inspires that kind of loyalty in so many people probably says enough. Press hard though, and most people who worked with Smalley will cryptically tell you he was "intense." Ask them to explain, and it becomes clear that, along with its usual meaning, "intense" is code for "could be difficult to work with."

Graduate students from the pre-Nobel Prize days recall a time when Smalley expected them to work 36-hour shifts. If a student wasn't at work on a Sunday afternoon, he wanted to know why.

The very first day James Heath spent in Smalley's lab in 1984, he stayed up until 3 AM doing an experiment with one of the lab's more complicated instruments. When the time came to pack up for the night, he realized that he didn't know how to turn the machine off. He was going to have to call Smalley.

When Smalley picked up the phone, Heath expected to hear his adviser's growl along with a warning never to call him at this hour again. Instead, Heath says, Smalley's reaction was utter delight at having a student still working in the lab at 3 AM.

Smalley loved to tell that story too.

"His people skills were a little bit awkward," explains Heath, now a professor at California Institute of Technology. "The reason I was doing an experiment until 3 AM on my first day was because Rick had basically alienated everyone else in his group. No one else would do it.

"You could have scientific discussions with Rick that would get really heated and a half hour later he would have forgotten about it," Heath elaborates. "A lot of graduate students can't handle that."

By all accounts, Smalley did mellow some with age. "I think he was concerned that he was going to become just another good physical chemist," offers Sean O'Brien, another buckyball-era student, now with Texas Instruments. "As the path to the Nobel Prize evolved and it became clear that C60 and fullerenes were going to be important, I think his concern about his legacy faded away. He became a lot more comfortable that he had made it to the top of the heap."

Smalley may have mellowed, but he didn't get soft, adds Hazel Cole, Smalley's executive assistant for the last two years of his life. "He demanded a lot of himself, and he expected that of other people," she says.

Those who strived to meet Smalley's expectations earned his respect as well as his affection, an affection they returned in kind. His graduate students Paul Cherukuri and Laura McJilton spent nights at his hospital bedside during the last weeks of his life so Smalley's wife, Debbie, could sleep for a few hours, confident they would awaken her if needed.

Understanding, perhaps better than anyone, that putting Smalley up on a pedestal would dishonor his life, Debbie speaks easily about Smalley's foibles and quirks. "He was a great dancer. He told corny jokes-Preston-level jokes," she says, referring to Smalley's nine-year-old son from his third marriage, whom Smalley was raising.

"He was forgetful," she says of the scientist whose remarkable recall struck even his brightest peers. "He had Preston and me search all around the house for his missing cell phone once. It was in the pocket of the shorts he was wearing.

"When he would consider something urgent, he would want everybody to feel that kind of urgency. All of a sudden, he wanted everyone to be as passionate as he was," Debbie continues. This wasn't confined to the big issues, like energy policy, she says. He insisted his family watch the 1966 comedy "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming," hoping they would find it as funny as he did.

He was a fighter to the very end, Debbie says. When complications from leukemia made his throat too sore to speak, he roared into the phone rather than leave friends like Sen. Hutchison in silence. There's a reason Smalley's mother nicknamed him Richard the Lionheart.

In the last of his 62 years, Smalley, who despite his evangelical style had never been particularly religious, began to direct his passion toward Christianity. Guided largely by Debbie, he studied and deliberated, immersing himself in theology with the same fervor he'd brought to physical chemistry, nanotechnology, and energy.

Skeptics say dying men have an easier time finding God. A true cynic might even dismiss Smalley's spiritual transformation as the actions of a man trying to secure the affections of a beautiful and evangelical woman.

Debbie knows people say this. She says, "Anyone who really knew Rick knows he was not the sort of person to pretend to believe in something when he didn't."


The World According To Rick
Richard Smalley left his mark on science by laying the foundation for nanotechnology as we know it, then he tried to save the world

Human Element
Richard The Lionheart

The story behind the cover photo

Interactive Photo Gallery: Rick Smalley's friends and colleagues

Editor's Page: Celebrating Rick Smalley

Chemical & Engineering News
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