Herbert C. Brown


Herbert C. Brown

My parents, Charles Brovarnik and Pearl Gorinstein, were born in Zhitomir in the Ukraine and came to London in 1908 as part of the vast Jewish immigration in the early part of this century. They were married in London. In 1909 my sister, Ann, was born. I arrived on May 22, 1912. In June 1914 my father decided to join his mother and father and other members of his family in Chicago, much to the dismay of my mother, whose own family largely remained in England. My grandfather’s name had been anglicized to Brown, and that became our name. In the United States, my two sisters, Sophie and Riva, were born in 1916 and 1918.

My father had been trained as a cabinet maker, doing delicate inlaid work. However, he found little market for his skills in the U.S. and turned to carpentry.

The Depression of 1920 persuaded him to go into business and he opened a small hardware store in Chicago at 18th and State Street, largely a black neighborhood. We lived in an apartment above the store and I attended the Haven School at Wabash and 16th Street with predominantly black classmates.

I did well in school and was advanced several times, graduating at 12. Indeed, I was offered, but refused, further advancement since I did not want to be in the same class with my sister, Ann.

On graduation, I went to Englewood High School on the South Side of Chicago. Unfortunately, my father became ill of some sort of infection and died in 1926. I left school to work in our store. I am afraid that I was not really interested in the business and spent most of my time reading. My mother finally decided that she would attend the store and I should go back to school. Accordingly, I reentered Englewood in February 1929 and graduated in 1930.

At Englewood I ran the humor column of the school paper and won a national prize. I never recovered.

We sold the store at that time. I had no hope of going on to college. However, this was the beginning of the Depression and I could find no permanent job. Studying appealed to me much more than the odd jobs I could find. I decided to go to college. I entered college intending to major in electrical engineering. I had heard that one could make a good living in that area. However, I took chemistry and became fascinated with that subject, and remained with chemistry thereafter. I had just completed one semester at Crane Junior College when it was announced in 1933 that the school was to be closed for lack of funds. I then went to night school at the Lewis Institute, taking one or two courses, financing myself by working as a part-time shoe clerk.

I then heard that one of the instructors at Crane, Dr. Nicholas Cheronis, had opened his laboratory to several students, so that they could continue their studies on their own. I went there and grew to know and love a fellow student, Sarah Baylen. Sarah had been the brightest student in chemistry at Crane prior to my arrival. She has described (“Remembering HCB”) how she initially “hated my guts.” But since she could not beat me, she later decided to join me, to my everlasting delight.

In 1934 Wright Junior College opened its doors. We went there and nine of us graduated in 1935 as the first graduating class. In my yearbook Sarah predicted that I would be a Nobel Laureate!

I had been advised to take the competitive examination for a scholarship at the University of Chicago. I did so. To my astonishment, little of the examination was devoted to the chemistry, physics, and mathematics that had constituted the major portion of my studies. Instead, the examination emphasized general subjects: history, art, music, literature, etc. – subjects I had never studied formally. I did the best I could and was pleasantly surprised when I received a half scholarship.

I entered the University of Chicago in the Fall of 1935, accompanied by my girlfriend, Sarah. This was the time when the President of the University, Robert Maynard Hutchins, was arguing for the principle that students should be permitted to proceed as rapidly as possible. Indeed, at that time it cost no more to take ten courses than it did the usual three. I did so, and completed my junior and senior year in three quarters, receiving the B.S. in 1936.
I did not apply for graduate work. I wanted to find a job and marry my girlfriend. However, a famous organic chemist, Julius Stieglitz – then Emeritus, but still teaching – called me into his office and urged me to reconsider my decision. He predicted a favorable future as a research chemist. I discussed the matter with Sarah and she agreed that marriage could wait. Accordingly, I began graduate work.

On my graduation, Sarah presented me with a gift – a copy of Alfred Stock’s book, The Hydrides of Boron and Silicon. This book interested me in the hydrides of boron and I undertook to study with Professor H.I. Schlesinger, then active in that area of research.

Sarah and I were married “secretly” on February 6, 1937. We were such innocents that we did not realize that marriages are published in the daily newspapers. Consequently, our marriage was a secret for the weekend!

Once the news got out, I had to begin supporting her. But my income as a graduate assistant was only $400 per year, out of which had to come $300 for tuition. But Sarah obtained a position at Billings Hospital in Medical Chemistry and kept us solvent.

I received my Ph.D. in 1938. Unfortunately (perhaps fortunately), I could not find an industrial position. Professor M.S. Kharasch then offered me a position as a postdoctorate at a stipend of $1600 and my academic career was initiated. The following year Professor Schlesinger invited me to become his research assistant with the rank of Instructor, replacing Anton B. Burg, who was moving on to the University of Southern California. Consequently, I am an unusual example of a chemist who ended up in academic work because he could not find an industrial position.

At that time one did not achieve tenure until after ten years. I had seen a number of individuals who had remained at Chicago as Instructors for nine years without tenure and then had to find another position under severe pressure. I decided to avoid this situation. Accordingly, after four years I asked Professor Schlesinger for a decision as to my future in the Department. When he came back with the word that there was no future, I undertook to find another position.

Fortunately, Morris Kharasch had a good friend, Neil Gordon, who had just gone as Department Head to Wayne University in Detroit. (Neil Gordon, the originator of the Gordon Research Conferences, had given Morris Kharasch his first position at the University of Maryland back in 1920.) Neil Gordon was persuaded to give me a position at Wayne as Assistant Professor, preserving my academic career. I became Associate Professor in 1946, and was invited to Purdue in 1947 by the Head of the Chemistry Department, Henry B. Hass, as Professor of Inorganic Chemistry. In 1959 I became Wetherill Distinguished Professor and in 1960 Wetherill Research Professor. I became Emeritus in 1978, but continue to work with a large group of postdoctorates.

Originally my research covered physical, organic and inorganic chemistry and I took students in all three areas. However, as the Department became more organized into divisions, it became necessary to make a choice, and I elected to work primarily with coworkers in organic chemistry.

In addition to my research program in the borane-organoborane area, described in my Nobel Lecture, my research program has involved the study of steric effects, the development of quantitative methods to determine steric strains, the examination of the chemical effects of steric strains, the non-classical ion problem, the basic properties of aromatic hydrocarbons, a quantitative theory of aromatic substitution, and the development of a set of electrophilic substitution constants, s+, which correlate aromatic substitution data and a wide variety of electrophilic reactions.

Professor Brown was the Harrison Howe Lecturer in 1953, the Centenary Lecturer of The Chemical Society (London) in 1955, and the Baker Lecturer in 1968. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1957, the America n Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966, received an honorary Doctorate of Science degree from the University of Chicago in 1968 and was elected Honorary Fellow of The Chemical Society and Foreign Member of the Indian National Academy of Sciences in 1978. Finally, he is the recipient of the Nichols Medal for 1959, the ACS Award for Creative Research in Synthetic Organic Chemistry for 1960, the Linus Pauling Medal for 1968, the National Medal of Science for 1969, the Roger Adams Medal for 1971, the Charles Frederick Chandler Medal for 1973, the Madison Marshall Award for 1975, the CCNY Scientific Achievement Award Medal for 1976, the Allied Award for 1978, the Ingold Memorial Lecturer and Medal for 1978, the Elliott Cresson Medal for 1978, and the Nobel Prize for 1979.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1979, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1980

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

Herbert C. Brown died on December 19, 2004.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1979

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