News your connection to The Boston Globe
Roald Hoffman
Roald Hoffman won a 1981 Nobel Prize for his 1964 work giving chemists the power to predict the outcome of some chemical reactions. He shared the prize with chemist Kenichi Fukui, who independently developed a similar theory. (AP Photo / Kevin Rivoli)
Elias J. Corey
Elias J. Corey said the original idea behind the theory was his. He claims that Robert B. Woodward, Hoffman's partner, took his idea without crediting him. (Globe Staff File Photo)
Robert B. Woodward
Robert B. Woodward, who died in 1979, never got to defend himself. (Globe File Photo)

Whose idea was it?

Page 2 of 5 -- Competition, rivalry, and ego often help drive scientists, and these elements figure in to the Corey-Woodward-Hoffmann dispute. But the case is also unusual and surprising: Four decades have passed, and the players are scientific giants. All won Nobel Prizes -- Woodward's came in 1965, Corey's in 1990.

The two living chemists have little to gain from the controversy at this point, but Corey has never dropped his claim, taking it public last year in a speech accepting another prize. In listing his accomplishments, he said he proposed the idea for the rules -- and created a stir in the normally sedate chemistry community.

''It is very strange," said William von Eggers Doering, an 87-year-old professor emeritus in Harvard's chemistry department who was Woodward's friend. ''But,on the other hand, the personalities that go with distinguished basic scientific achievement really vary all over the lot. . . . If a scientist is any good at all, you just have to accept the nonsense that goes with it."

Chronology of an ideaIn May 1964, Harvard's chemistry department was home to a host of smart young scientists, presided over by a handful of superstars including Woodward -- a flamboyant, uncompromising genius who always dressed in blue, and even had his parking space painted blue. In the basement of Converse Hall, Corey, appointed a full professor at Harvard four years earlier, was embarking on a brilliant career. Just down the hall sat Hoffmann, a 26-year-old theoretical chemist who frequently stopped into Corey's office to learn organic chemistry.

Corey has a clear memory of the events of that month, which he says disturbed him greatly -- and the following account was drawn from a series of letters he wrote to Hoffmann in the 1980s and a recent interview in his Harvard office.

Corey, then 35, was working into the evening on Monday, May 4, as he and the other driven chemists often did. At about 8:30 p.m., he dropped by Woodward's office, and Woodward posed a question about how to predict the type of ring a chain of atoms would form. After some discussion, Corey proposed that the configuration of electrons governed the course of the reaction. Woodward insisted the solution wouldn't work, but Corey left drawings in the office, sure that he was on to something.

''I felt that this was going to be a really interesting development and was looking forward to some sort of joint undertaking," he wrote.

But the next day, Woodward flew into Corey's office as he and a colleague were leaving for lunch and presented Corey's idea as his own -- and then left. Corey was stunned.

Two days later, Woodward introduced the idea at a group meeting, Corey said.   Continued...

 Previous    1   2   3   4   5    Next 
Rosalind Franklin
James Watson and Francis Crick drew on the work of Rosalind Franklin (above, in a 1950 photo) when they described the double-helix structure of DNA, but many believe her role was downplayed. (New York Times Photo)
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months