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March 31, 2003
Volume 81, Number 13
CENEAR 81 13 p. 7
ISSN 0009-2347


Synthetic chemist from Harvard will receive ACS's top award in 2004


Elias J. Corey, the Sheldon Emery Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University, will receive the 2004 Priestley Medal. The award is the American Chemical Society's highest honor, given each year for distinguished service to chemistry.

DISTINGUISHED Corey has transformed total synthesis field.
This "recent good fortune," Corey says of his selection last week at the ACS national meeting in New Orleans, is "both unexpected and moving." He says the award reflects well on synthetic chemistry, a "mighty engine for human betterment" that he believes is widely underappreciated.

Commenting on the award, Stuart L. Schreiber, chair of Harvard's department of chemistry and chemical biology, says that Corey's teaching, research, and leadership have "advanced our science in ways that cause chemists to be proud of their profession."

Corey's achievements are voluminous, but perhaps the first that comes to mind is retrosynthetic analysis, the logical deconstruction of molecules to be synthesized into simpler and simpler precursors until simple or commercially available compounds are obtained. Developed in the 1960s, the method systematized the way chemists designed syntheses. At the time, when syntheses were planned on the basis of trial and error, assumed starting points, or inexplicable insights, the concept was radical.

Retrosynthetic analysis "helped to advance total synthesis to unprecedented levels of complexity and efficiency," notes K. C. Nicolaou, a chemistry professor at Scripps Research Institute and at the University of California, San Diego. Coupled with Corey's development of synthetic methods and ingenious strategies, retrosynthetic analysis has led to total synthesis of extraordinarily complex targets of clinical or biological interest and earned Corey the 1990 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Among recent targets of the Corey lab is ecteinascidin 743, a powerful anticancer compound found in minuscule amounts in sea squirts. Synthesis has allowed the compound to advance to late-phase clinical trials in Europe and the U.S. In the late 1960s, Corey targeted prostaglandins, which take part in many physiological processes but occur in the body in very small amounts. The routes developed in the Corey lab enabled fundamental studies of these compounds.

"Without Corey, modern organic synthesis could not exist," says Ryoji Noyori, Chemistry Nobel Laureate in 2001. Noyori's interest in asymmetric hydrogenation originated from postdoctoral work with Corey on selective hydrogenation of a prostaglandin.

Corey, 74, received bachelor's and doctoral degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1948 and 1951). He joined the chemistry faculty of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 1951 and moved to Harvard in 1959. He has received 18 honorary degrees and numerous awards, including the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, the National Medal of Science, the Japan Prize in Science, the Roger Adams Award, and the Messel Medal of the U.K.'s Society for Chemical Industry. The more than 600 chemists who have been his students or scientific partners "deserve much of the credit," Corey says.


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Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

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