The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1973
Ernst Otto Fischer, Geoffrey Wilkinson
Presentation Speech by Professor Ingvar Lindqvist of the Royal Academy of Sciences
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies
Throughout history, there has been a tendency for people to take a stereotyped view of their fellow men in other occupations or with different backgrounds. I think that we all would agree that these stereotypes are harmful, and yet every day we can see evidence for the hold they have, even on intelligent people. Popularly held ideas about what a chemist does and how he works are perhaps more harmless than many such stereotypes, but for the chemist himself, the misconceptions can sometimes be a little irritating. In the first place, chemists are assumed always to work on technological developments rather than the discovery of new concepts. At the same time, the whole field of chemistry, including practical applications, rests firmly on the foundations laid down during hundreds of years of the impartial quest for truth. Chemists are also thought of as reasoning by the use of intellectual processes, without the use of much fantasy, at least as far as their research is concerned. But the history of chemistry is full of colourful, imaginative personalities, and what is more, the important fact is that they would never have been able to make their discoveries without tempering the use of logical reasoning and knowledge with fantasy and intuition. Koestler has on some occasion claimed that scientific activity is closely related to the process of artistic creation, and there is certainly at least a grain of truth in this assertion.
It seems to be appropriate to put forward these views when speaking of this year's Nobel laureates in chemistry, professors Fischer and Wilkinson. The facts were available for all the chemists of the world to see, but the right interpretation was lacking. Once the correct hypothesis was arrived at by fantasy or intuition, it readily lent itself to simple processes of logical deduction. I am of course referring to the way in which they together with the former Nobel laureate Woodward reached the conclusion that certain compounds could not be understood without the introduction of a new concept, namely that of the sandwich compound. This expression applies to the structure of these compounds, which can be thought of as a metal atom - the filling - sandwiched between two flat molecules. Now the science of chemistry involves, of course, more than flashes of visionary inspiration, and both Fischer and Wilkinson did not hesitate to confirm and develop the concept of the sandwich compound by an intensive experimental effort. This they did by the successful synthesis of a large number of compounds which were analogous to the initially discovered ferrocene (named by Woodward in analogy with benzene), but with other metals than iron, and with other flat molecules than the cyclopentadienyl group found in ferrocene. Amongst other things, Fischer managed to surprise chemists by preparing a sandwich of chromium between two benzene molecules. The culinary exploits were pursued further with the progress to open sandwiches, having a flat molecule on one side of the metal atom, and with only small molecules such as carbonyl, methyl or ethyl groups on the other side. Perhaps the most interesting development was when Wilkinson managed to prepare a sandwich compound with a direct chemical bond between the metal atom rhenium and hydrogen. This was a completely new type of chemical bond at the time.
The discovery and confirmation of the new bonding and structural principles applying to sandwich compounds is the notable achievement of the two Nobel prize winners. It is a fact that every discovery within the realm of fundamental chemical research has potential applications. The very circumstance of the stability of sandwich compounds has led to involved theoretical discussions, which have also played their part in important advances in theoretical and applied research on catalysis. We cannot yet predict the practical importance that sandwich compounds will have in the future, nor whether they will finally be shown to occur in biological systems. One thing that is quite sure, however, is that all workers in the field of sandwich compounds in the future will be familiar with the names of Fischer and Wilkinson.
Die Entdeckungen vollständig neuer Prinzipien der chemischen Bindung und Struktur sind immer grosse Augenblicke in der Geschichte der Chemie gewesen. Sie haben zu einer solchen Entdeckung in hervorragender Weise beigetragen. Ich überbringe Ihnen die wärmsten Glückwiinsche der Königlichen Schwedischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
The discovery of quite new types of chemical bonds and structures has always been considered as milestones in the history of chemistry. You have contributed to such a discovery in a decisive way. May I convey to you the warmest congratulations of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Professor Fischer, Professor Wilkinson. May I request you to receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry from the hands of His Majesty the King.
From Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1971-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture ForsÚn, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1973