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About Herbert C. Brown (Brovarnik), Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1979
Herbert C. Brown. Born: 22 May 1912, London, United Kingdom. Died: 19 December 2004, Lafayette, CA, USA. Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1979 (jointly with Georg Wittig), "for the development of the use of boron- and phosphorus-containing compounds, respectively, into important reagents in organic synthesis"
Brown was born Herbert Brovarnik in London to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants from Zhitomir. He moved to the United States in June 1914, at the age of two. In autumn 1935, he entered the University of Chicago, completed two years of studies in three quarters, and earned a B.S. in 1936. That same year, he became a naturalized United States citizen. On February 6, 1937, Brown married Sarah Baylen, the person he credits with making him interested in hydrides of boron, a topic related to the work in which he with Georg Wittig won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1979. Two years after starting graduate studies, he earned a Ph.D. in 1938, also from the University of Chicago. Unable to find a position in industry, he decided to accept an offer for a position as a post-doctorate. This became the beginning of his academic career. He became an Instructor at the University of Chicago in 1939, and held the position for four years before moving to Wayne University in Detroit as an Assistant Professor. In 1946, he was promoted to an Associate Professor. He became a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Purdue University in 1947 and joined Alpha Chi Sigma there in 1960. He held the position of Professor Emeritus from 1978 until his death in 2004. The Herbert C. Brown Laboratory of Chemistry was named after him on Purdue University's campus. He was an honorary member of the International Academy of Science.
During World War II, while working with Hermann Irving Schlesinger, Brown discovered a method for producing sodium borohydride (NaBH4), which can be used to produce boranes, compounds of boron and hydrogen. His work led to the discovery of the first general method for producing asymmetric pure enantiomers. The elements found as initials of his name H, C and B were his working field.
In 1969, he was awarded the National Medal of Science.
Brown was quick to credit his wife Sarah with supporting him and allowing him to focus on creative efforts by handling finances, maintaining the house and yard, etc. According to Brown, after receiving the Nobel prize in Stockholm, he carried the medal and she carried the US$100,000 award.
He died December 19, 2004, at a hospital in Lafayette, Indiana after a heart attack.
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.
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.
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 primarly with coworkers in organic chemistry.
Herbert C. Brown died on December 19, 2004.
From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1979, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1980
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1979