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September 23, 2008
Also appeared in print Sep. 29, 2008, p. 8


Ernest Eliel Dies At 86

Organic chemist and textbook author made fundamental contributions to stereochemistry

Bethany Halford

Ernest Eliel, 86, a central figure in the field of stereochemistry, the 1996 Priestley Medalist, and a former ACS president, died on Sept. 18 after a long illness.

Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections
Eliel performs an experiment in a pharmaceutical laboratory in Havana, 1945.

Eliel was born on Dec. 28, 1921, in Cologne, Germany. His fascination with chemistry began at age 11 with the gift of a chemistry set from his parents. By 15, Eliel had decided to make chemistry his life's work.

Fleeing the Nazis, Eliel left Germany for Scotland in 1938. Two years later, he was sent to a Canadian internment camp as an "enemy alien." Eventually, Eliel made his way to Cuba, where he earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Havana.

Eliel immigrated to the U.S. in 1946. He completed his doctoral studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in just two years under the guidance of chemistry professor Harold Snyder. In 1948, Eliel joined the chemistry faculty at the University of Notre Dame. It was there that he authored the classic textbook "Stereochemistry of Carbon Compounds," which has sold more than 40,000 copies worldwide.

In 1972, Eliel joined the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he spent the remainder of his career as the W. R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Chemistry. "Ernest Eliel was a giant in his field who was always gracious and generous with his time," says Michael Crimmins, chair of UNC's chemistry department. "He espoused and contributed to the highly collegial nature of the department, and although we will certainly miss him, his spirit will always be with us because of the great influence that he had on so many people here."

"Ernest was a modest man with an energy content and focus that matched his commitment to his profession," adds Jeffrey I. Seeman, a chemical historian at the University of Richmond who edited Eliel's autobiography "From Cologne to Chapel Hill."

Once described by a colleague as a bulldog, Eliel listed persistence as one of his fundamental values. "In science, even the best-laid-out ideas frequently don't work out," he told Seeman for a biographical sketch (Chirality 2002, 14, 98). "You have to find a way to get around the difficulties. If you give up right away, you won't get anywhere."

Eliel is survived by his wife, Eva; daughters Ruth and Carol; and two grandchildren.

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