A central theme of organic chemistry is the desire to understand important biological processes through discovering and imitating the manner in which Nature constructs its key substances from their basic chemical elements. Constructing artificial versions of natural products from its chemical building blocks traditionally involved a large degree of trial and error, and consequently the more complex the compound the more formidable the task. Through formulating rational and systematic processes that removed much of this guesswork, Robert Woodward continuously raised the bar for what could be achieved in the field by successfully synthesizing a series of natural products of a complexity never before seen.
The hallmarks of Woodward’s approach were his remarkable ability to select the best starting materials to create the major structural elements of the final compound, and to select the correct chemical reactions out of the many available that could help him stitch the starting materials together in the correct manner. Woodward also pioneered the use of the latest analytical tools from other branches of chemistry to ensure his chemical construction processes went exactly to plan. Using these tools, Woodward could deduce incredibly precise features of chemicals; in particular, he went to great pains to ensure that every atom and every chemical group was placed in its proper position in three-dimensional space at key stages in the procedure.
Several of Woodward’s numerous successes using this approach were hailed as being masterpieces in the art of synthesizing natural products. Most notably, Woodward synthesized the chemical quinine used in the treatment of malaria, the steroids cholesterol and cortisone, the infamous poison strychnine, the tranquilizing drug reserpine, and chlorophyll, the green plant pigment crucial for photosynthesis. He also shed light on the key structure of penicillin, and revealed the structures of a new class of antibiotics called the tetracyclines. His complex, ingenious approach, combined with his comprehensive command of all aspects of organic chemistry, helped Woodward to expand the possibilities with which chemists could rebuild Nature’s chemistry set.