The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1979
Herbert C. Brown, Georg Wittig
Presentation Speech by Professor Bengt
Lindberg of the Royal
Academy of Sciences
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Chemistry is a natural science which is not entirely devoted to the study of natural objects. The art of chemistry also includes the ability on the part of the chemists to prepare or synthesize various chemical compounds. This is especially true for carbon compounds, the chemistry of which is called organic chemistry. Carbon atoms may be linked to other carbon atoms and there appears to be no limit to how many times this may be repeated in a molecule. The possibilities for variation therefore are immense. Chemists have synthesized more than two million organic compounds. These possibilities to synthesizing compounds have greatly enriched chemistry and have had enormous practical consequences.
Through the use of synthetic pharmaceuticals, vitamins and pesticides against microorganisms, insects and weeds, millions of lives have been saved, much suffering has been alleviated and world famine has been reduced. Further significant progress may be expected in a range of practical, important areas, especially concerning the development of specific pesticides less disturbing to the environment than the present ones.
One of the most important tasks for the present-day organic chemists, in basic as well as in applied research, is the synthesis of biologically active compounds. In order to achieve this, we need methods of joining carbon atoms to one another and to modify organic compounds in a variety of ways. A great many chemists devote their time to developing such methods. A few times in the history of chemistry have new synthetic methods been deemed so important that the originators have been awarded the Nobel Prize. This has once more happened, this year Brown and Wittig have been awarded the prize for chemistry for their development of boron and phosphorus compounds, respectively, into important reagents in organic synthesis.
Herbert C. Brown has systematically studied various boron compounds and their chemical reactions. He has shown how various specific reductions can be carried out using borohydrides. One of the simplest of these, sodium borohydride, has become one of the most used chemical reagents. The organoboranes, which he discovered, have become the most versatile reagents in organic synthesis. The exploitation of their chemistry has led to new methods for rearrangements, for addition to double bonds and for joining carbon atoms to one another.
Georg Wittig has provided many significant contributions in organic chemistry. The most important of these is the discovery of the synthetic method which bears his name, the Wittig reaction. In this, phosphorus ylides, a type of compound which he discovered, are allowed to react with carbonyl compounds. An exchange of groups takes place and the result is a compound in which two carbon atoms have been joined by a double bond. Since many natural products with biological activity contain such bonds, this elegant method has found wide-spread use, for example in the industrial synthesis of vitamin A.
Your discovery and exploration of borohydrides and organo boranes have given the chemists new and powerful tools for organic syntheses. May I convey to you the warmest congratulations of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Die Reaktion die alle, aber nicht Sie selber, die Wittig Reaktion nennen, ist eine der wichtigsten Reaktionen der organischen Chemie geworden. Sie ist besonders geeignet für die Synthese verschiedener biologisch aktiver Moleküle. Ich überbringe Ihnen die herzlichsten Glückwünsche der Koniglichen Schwedischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
Professor Brown, Professor Wittig, may I ask 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 1979