Elias James Corey


My birth in July 1928 in Methuen, Massachusetts was followed just eighteen months later by the death of my father, Elias, a successful business man in that community 30 miles north of Boston. My mother, Fatina (née Hasham), changed my name from William to Elias shortly after my father’s passing. I do not remember my father, but all his friends and associates made it clear that he was a remarkably gifted and much admired person. I have always been guided by a desire to be a worthy son to the father I cannot remember and to the loving, courageous mother who raised me, my brother, and two sisters through the trials of the Depression and World War II. My grandparents on both sides, who emigrated from Lebanon to the United States, also knew how to cope with adversity, as Christians in a tragically torn country, under the grip of the Ottoman empire.

In 1931, our family grew to include my mother’s sister, Naciby, and her husband, John Saba, who had no children of their own. We all lived together in a spacious house in Methuen, still a gathering place for family reunions. My uncle and aunt were like second parents to us. As a youngster I was rather independent, preferring such sports as football, baseball and hiking to work. However, when my aunt, who was much stricter than my mother, assigned a household chore, it had to be taken seriously. From her I learned to be efficient and to take pleasure in a job well done, no matter how mundane. We were a very close, happy and hardworking family with everything that we needed, despite the loss of my father and the hard economic times. Uncle John died in 1957, and too soon afterwards, in 1960, my aunt passed away. My mother died in 1970 at the age of seventy. They all lived to see each of the four children attain a measure of success.

From the ages of five to twelve I attended the Saint Laurence O’Toole elementary school in Lawrence, a city next to Methuen, and was taught by sisters of the Catholic order of Notre Dame de Namour. I enjoyed all my subjects there. I do not remember ever learning any science, except for mathematics. I graduated from Lawrence Public High School at the age of sixteen and entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just a few weeks later, in July, 1945, with excellent preparation, since most of my high school teachers had been dedicated and able. Although my favorite subject was mathematics, I had no plan for a career, except the notion that electronic engineering might be attractive, since it utilized mathematics at an interesting technological frontier. My first courses at M.I.T. were in the basic sciences: mathematics, physics and chemistry, all of which were wonderful. I became a convert to chemistry before even taking an engineering course because of the excellence and enthusiasm of my teachers, the central position of chemistry in the sciences and the joy of solving problems in the laboratory. Organic chemistry was especially fascinating with its intrinsic beauty and its great relevance to human health. I had many superb teachers at M.I.T., including Arthur C. Cope, John C. Sheehan, John D. Roberts and Charles Gardner Swain. I graduated from M.I.T. after three years and, at the suggestion of Professor Sheehan, continued there as a graduate member of his pioneering program on synthetic penicillins. My doctoral work was completed by the end of 1950 and, at the age of twenty-two, I joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an Instructor in Chemistry under the distinguished chemists Roger Adams and Carl S. Marvel. I am forever grateful to them for giving me such a splendid opportunity, as well as for their help and friendship over many years.

Because my interests in chemistry ranged from the theoretical and quantitative side to the biological end of the spectrum, I decided to maintain a broad program of teaching and research and to approach chemistry as a discipline without internal boundaries. My research in the first three years, which had to be done with my own hands and a few undergraduate students, was in physical organic chemistry. It had to do with the application of molecular orbital theory to the understanding of the transition states for various reactions in three dimensional (i.e. stereochemical) detail. The stereoelectronic ideas which emerged from this work are still widely used in chemistry and mechanistic enzymology. By 1954, as an Assistant Professor with a group of three graduate students, I was able to initiate more complex experimental projects, dealing with the structure, stereochemistry and synthesis of natural products. As a result of the success of this research, I was appointed in 1956, at age twenty-seven, as Professor of Chemistry. My research group grew and the scope of our work broadened to include other topics: enantioselective synthesis, metal complexes, new reactions for synthesis and enzyme chemistry. The pace of discovery accelerated.

In the fall of 1957, I received a Guggenheim fellowship and my first sabbatical leave. It was divided between Harvard, to which I had been invited by the late Prof. Robert B. Woodward, and Europe. The last four months of 1957 would prove eventful. In September, shortly after the beginning of my stay at Harvard, my uncle John passed away. At least I had been lucky enough to have seen him just two days before. I was deeply affected by the loss of this fine and generous man whom I loved as a real father. In solitude and sadness I returned to my work and a very deep immersion in studies which proved to be pivotal to my future research. In early October several of the key ideas for a logical and general way of thinking about chemical synthesis came to me. The application of these insights led to rapid and unusual solutions to several specific synthetic problems of interest to me at the time. I showed one such plan (for the molecule longifolene) to R. B. Woodward and was pleased by his enthusiastic response. Later in 1957 I visited Switzerland, London and Lund, the last as a guest of Prof. Karl Sune Bergström. It was at Lund, in Bergström’s Department, that I became intrigued by the prostaglandins. Our research in the mid 1960’s led to the first chemical syntheses of prostaglandins and to involvement in the burgeoning field of eicosanoids ever since.

In the spring of 1959 I received an offer of a Professorship at Harvard, which I accepted with alacrity since I wanted to be near my family and since the Chemistry Department at Harvard was unsurpassed. The Harvard faculty in 1959 included Paul D. Bartlett, Konrad Bloch, Louis F. Fieser, George B. Kistiakowski, E. G. Rochow, Frank H. Westheimer, E. B. Wilson and R. B. Woodward, all giants in the field of Chemistry. Roger Adams, who was always very kind and encouraging to me, gave his blessing even though years before he had declined a professorial appointment at Harvard. I have always regarded the offer of a Professorship at Harvard as the most gratifying of my professional honors.

At Harvard my research group grew in size and quality, and developed a spirit and dynamism which has been a continuing delight to me. I was able to start many new scientific projects and to teach an advanced graduate course on chemical synthesis. Using the concepts of retrosynthetic analysis under guidance of broad strategies, first-year graduate students could be taught in just three months to design sophisticated chemical syntheses. My research interests soon evolved to include the following areas: synthesis of complex, bioactive molecules; the logic of chemical synthesis; new methods of synthesis; molecular catalysts and robots; theoretical organic chemistry and reaction mechanisms; organometallic chemistry; bioorganic and enzyme chemistry; prostaglandins and other eicosanoids and their relevance to medicine; application of computers to organic chemical problems, especially to retrosynthetic analysis. My personal scientific aspirations can be similarly summarized: to be creative over a broad range of the chemical sciences; to sustain that creativity over many years; to raise the power of research in chemistry to a qualitatively higher level; and to develop new generations of outstanding chemists.

In September, 1961, I married Claire Higham, a graduate of the University of Illinois. We have three children. David Reid is a graduate of Harvard (A.B. 1985) and the University of California, Berkeley (Ph.D., 1990), who is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Chemistry/Molecular Biology at the University of California Medical School at San Francisco. Our second son, John, graduated from Harvard (A.B. 1987) and the Paris Conservatory of Music (1990) and is now carrying out advanced studies in classical music composition at the latter institution. Our daughter, Susan, graduated from Harvard with a major in anthropology (A.B. 1990) and plans graduate work in Education. Claire and I live near the Harvard Campus in Cambridge, as we have for nearly thirty years. My leisure interests include outdoor activities and music.

I am very proud of the many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from all over the world who have worked in my research group. Their discoveries in my laboratory and their subsequent achievements in science have been a source of enormous satisfaction. The Corey research family now includes about one hundred fifty university professors and an even larger number of research scientists in the pharmaceutical and chemical industry. It has been my good fortune to have been involved in the education of scholars and leaders in every area of chemical research, and especially, to have contributed to the scientific development of many different countries. My research family has been an extraordinarily important part of my life. Much of the credit for what I have achieved belongs to that professional family, my wonderful teachers and faculty colleagues, and not least, to my own dear personal family.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1990, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1991

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.


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1990

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