Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

‘Top chemists’ continued

Since we published our previous post, Wavefunction has also written about the list, asking ‘Is the age of traditional organic synthesis over?’ He noticed that there are fewer organic chemists on the list than you might think, and certainly fewer than he’d expect from “any such list from the 50s through the 90s”, which “would have been dominated by organic chemists engaged in methodology and total synthesis”.

Would it? Michelle Francl managed to dig out a list of “”">ISI’s 1000 Most Cited Chemists, 1981-June 1997".

Throwing the data through my trusty spreadsheet, I removed those with <50 papers in that period (as the latest THE table did) and ordered by average citations per paper to get this top 10:

BAX,A; 142.47

SMALLEY, RE; 108.92

CURL, RF; 95.2

BRUS, LE; 85.96

DEWAR, MJS; 81.52

HEHRE, WJ; 81.32

POPLE, JA; 79.8

ERNST, RR; 71.81

NUZZO, RG; 70.77

GROVES, JT; 69.37

I don’t really think any of those count as synthetic organic chemists. Looking at the list ordered by total citations doesn’t change that too much either (for what it’s worth the top 10 is: BAX, POPLE, SCHLEYER, ERNST, WHITESIDES, SCHAEFER, HUFFMAN, RHEINGOLD, SEEBACH, LEHN).

So, was there ever a “golden age of organic synthesis” where chemistry as a whole was dominated by the big beasts of synthesis? Or – to be fairly provocative – are organic chemists just a little insular and think that their bit of the chemistry kingdom is the only one that matters?

Neil (a solid-state inorganic chemist!)

Neil Withers (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)


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    Matt said:

    I don’t know that individual citation count is necessarily the most relevant way to determine if there was a golden age of organic chemistry. I think it is a very flawed metric for this. I don’t know that I necessarily think that I have a good feeling for how relevant these #’s are to the gist of this conversation.

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    Carmen said:

    Organic chemists have a culture of legend-making. Think about named reactions— we have far more of those than we have equations or catalysts named after chemists. And when people learn I trained as an organic chemist, if they too were trained in the area they very frequently ask who I worked with.

    That’s not to say there aren’t legends in other fields— I was not surprised to see Al Cotton on the full ‘old list’. But there’s something about organic chemistry that creates ‘superstars’.. I wonder if we could break down the citation data amond organic/organometallic/polymer or other closely allied fields, and see if the cites lined up with who we consider the organic giants? I’m not sure but I think it’d be closer than these lists.

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    Neil said:

    @Matt I guess one way to look would be to take a few issues of JACS from each decade and analyze them by subject areas. I was going to say that citations do have a purpose to show how relevant each publication is, but I guess that’s just a reflection of the number of papers in an area anyway. How else could you look? The changing focus of faculty members or some sort of grant analysis, but those are both harder to look at.

    @Carmen I think being asked who you worked with/for by fellow practioners is fairly common. Re Al Cotton – did you see how many papers he published in that window?! I think citations by field would be worth a look, but I’ll leave that to someone with more time to spare.

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    Curious Wavefunction said:

    Interesting. I agree with Neil and Matt, although I would be interested in the same list for 1950-1980; I think there certainly was a golden age of organic synthesis in the 50s and 60s dominated by R B Woodward. More appropriate and interesting as Neil mentioned would be a listing of total number of important papers in every field for every decade.

    I think that there is a reason that organic synthesis has been put on a pedestal. Many activities contribute to chemical progress, but there is no doubt that it’s synthesis that uniquely distinguishes chemistry from all other disciplines. And generally speaking, organic structures because of their great complexity have signified the holy grails of synthesis for a long time. There are other factors that have contributed to the “cult” too; consider that Woodward’s reputation in organic chemistry and chemistry as a whole exceeded that of any other chemist till his death. The power of personality mainly exemplified by Woodward played as great a role in organic chemistry as the power of personality exemplified by Einstein, Dirac, Heisenberg, Feynman etc. played in theoretical physics.

    Then there is the language; descriptions of synthetic activity have typically been imbued with artistic, aesthetic and even athletic metaphors more than almost any other discipline. The kind of descriptions of organic synthesis that have trickled down through the generations have made it sound like total synthesis is the hardest thing to do it in all of chemistry, and there is a shred of truth in this claim; few people can deny the unique fascination with a one-hundred step synthesis of Vitamin B-12 stretched out over fifteen years, carried out by more than a hundred postdocs and students and spread out on two sides of the Atlantic. Finally, the fact that you are synthesizing the molecules of life themselves imparts a wholly special significance to organic synthesis. It’s the old myth of vitalism shattered anew.

    So I think that the culture and allure of synthesis is partly real and partly perceived, perpetrated and manufactured by the nature of the field and by superstars like Woodward, Djerassi, Corey and Nicolaou (and their students) who contributed to the aura, feeling of awe and legendary storytelling surrounding themselves and their field.

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    Revathi Bacsa said:

    May be organic chemists don’t publish as much as say those working on “nano”. In the case of nano, someone like Smalley is likely to be cited every time the word carbon nanotubes appeared for the first time in any publication.