Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • ROBERT HOWARD GRUBBS (1942-2021)
    ROBERT HOWARD GRUBBSROBERT HOWARD GRUBBS

     

    BY DAVID A. TIRRELL

    ROBERT HOWARD GRUBBS, Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, whose contributions to organic, organometallic, and polymer chemistry enabled fundamental changes in the way we make molecules and materials, passed away on December 19, 2021, in Duarte, California. He was 79.

    Bob was born February 27, 1942, near Possom Trot in rural western Kentucky. His mother, Faye, was a teacher; his father, Howard, a mechanic with the Tennessee Valley Authority. His family placed great value on education.

    Bob attended the University of Florida, where he planned to study agricultural chemistry. An encounter with Merle Battiste, a new faculty member at the university, started Bob on a path toward research in organic chemistry. After earning both BS (1963) and MS (1965) degrees at Florida, Bob moved to New York City to pursue graduate study with Ronald Breslow (NAS 1966) at Columbia University, where he got his PhD in 1968. While in New York he also met the woman who would become his wife and best friend, Helen O’Kane.

    A growing interest in the use of metals in organic chemistry took Bob to Stanford University for postdoctoral work with James Collman (NAS 1975), and then to Michigan State, where he established his independent laboratory in 1969. It was at Michigan State that Bob initiated work on the olefin metathesis reaction, which remained his primary scientific interest for the rest of his career. That work, most of which was performed at Caltech after a move to Pasadena in 1978, would earn Bob a share of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

    Among Bob’s many contributions to the chemistry of olefin metathesis, the development of stable catalysts based on late transition metals stands out. Unlike earlier metathesis catalysts, ruthenium-based systems can be made and distributed on a commercial scale and used in the synthesis of complex organic and polymeric structures. Because the metathesis reaction enables carbon-carbon bonds—a central problem in organic and polymer chemistry—the “Grubbs catalysts” can be applied to the preparation of an astonishing range of products of fundamental and practical importance, and have become indispensable tools in the hands of scientists and engineers around the world.

    Bob changed the field of chemistry as much through his mentorship as through his scientific insights. Nearly every leading chemistry department in the United States, and many more overseas, host Grubbs proteges on their faculties. Bob encouraged his coworkers’ independence and created an environment in which young scientists could readily see themselves leading successful research programs of their own.

    He also changed the standing of polymer chemistry in the American academic community. When he moved to Caltech in 1978, polymer chemistry was nearly absent from the nation’s leading chemistry departments. But as Bob’s students and postdoctoral coworkers established their own laboratories in those departments, polymer chemistry came to be seen as an important element of a successful academic chemistry program. Bob’s influence on academic polymer and materials chemistry continues decades later and will last for many more.

    In 1999 Bob and others founded Materia Inc., which develops and markets high-performance thermosetting resins and composites based on ring-opening metathesis polymerization of dicyclopentadiene and other monomers. Materia was acquired by ExxonMobil Chemical Company as a wholly owned subsidiary in December 2021. RxSight, a second company in which Bob played a key role, was granted approval by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2017 for distribution of light-adjustable intraocular lenses and associated instrumentation for surgical treatment of cataract patients.

    For the National Academies, Bob served on the Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology (1996–99) and the Committees on New Directions in Catalyst Science and Technology (1989–92), Army Basic Scientific Research (1981–86), and Polymer Science and Engineering (1992–94), among others.

    In addition to his Nobel Prize, which he shared with Yves Chauvin and Richard Schrock (NAS 1992), Bob received many honors and awards in recognition of his contributions to chemistry and materials science. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1989, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994, the National Academy of Engineering in 2015, and the Royal Society in 2017. He was awarded the Havinga Medal (2006), the Tetrahedron Prize for Creativity in Organic Chemistry (2003), the Linus Pauling Award (2003), the American Chemical Society (ACS) Award for Creative Research in Homogeneous or Heterogeneous Catalysis (2003), the ACS Arthur C. Cope Award (2002), the ACS Herman F. Mark Polymer Chemistry Award (2000), the Benjamin Franklin Medal (2000), the Nagoya Medal of Organic Chemistry (1997), the ACS Award in Polymer Chemistry (1995), and the ACS National Award in Organometallic Chemistry (1988), among other accolades. In addition, he held several honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world.

    Throughout his life, Bob enjoyed outdoor activities including rock climbing, hiking, fly-fishing, and camping. His annual camping trips with his research group were major events, drawing in participants from other laboratories and adding greatly to the camaraderie of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech.

    Bob is survived by Helen, their children Robert (Barney), Brendan, and Kathleen, and four grandchildren.

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    A delightful first-hand account of Bob Grubbs’ life is available at https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/2005/grubbs/biographical/; and Caltech’s moving and informative tribute is available at https://www.caltech.edu/about/news/caltech-mourns-the-loss-of-nobel-laureate-robert-h-grubbs.