Elias J. Corey’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1990
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
There is a children’s poem by Julia Carney entitled “Little Things,” one verse of which reads:
Little drops of water, little grains of sand
Make the mighty ocean and the pleasant land
Thus the little minutes, humble though they be
Make the mighty ages of eternity.
It is by countless small steps, like the little grains of sand, that we endeavor to understand ourselves and our universe, though confronted by endless complexity. Whatever our field – science, technology, humanities, art – we are excited by the challenge of research at an endless frontier, and also humbled by the vastness of our ignorance. We are heartened by the belief that knowledge, if wisely used, can benefit mankind.
My special fascination has been to understand better the world of chemistry and its complexities. Chemical compounds of carbon can exist in an infinite variety of compositions, forms and sizes. The naturally occurring organic substances are the basis of all life on earth, and their science at the molecular level defines a fundamental language of that life. The chemical synthesis of these naturally occurring substances and many millions of other carbon compounds has been one of the major enterprises of science in this century. That fact was affirmed by the award to me of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1990 for the “development of the theory and methodology of organic synthesis.” Chemical synthesis is uniquely positioned at the heart of chemistry, the central science. Its impact on our lives and society is all pervasive. For instance, most of today’s medicines are synthetic and the majority of tomorrow’s will be conceived and produced by synthetic chemists. To the field of synthetic chemistry belongs an array of responsibilities which are crucial for the future of mankind, not only with regard to the health and needs of our society, but also for the attainment of a deep understanding of matter, chemical change and life.
In the years after World War II, chemical syntheses were developed which could not have been anticipated in the earlier part of this century. For the first time, several complex molecules were assembled by elaborately conceived multistep processes, for example vitamin A, cortisone, morphine, penicillin, and chlorophyll. This striking leap forward was followed more recently by an equally dramatic advance in which chemical synthesis has been raised to a much higher level of sophistication. Today, in many laboratories around the world, chemists are synthesizing at an astonishing rate complex organic structures which could not have been made in the 1950’s or 1960’s. This advance has been propelled by the availability of new ways of thinking about chemical synthesis and the use of new chemical and physical methods. Many talented investigators all over the world have contributed to the latest surge of chemical synthesis. Their efforts constitute a collective undertaking of vast dimensions, even though made independently. Their ideas and discoveries interact synergistically to the benefit of all. I am happy to have been selected by the Nobel Committee for contributions to the science of chemical synthesis, but I am even more pleased that this important field of science has again received high recognition.