November/December 2006 SCALACS: Dr. Henry Abrash

Henry Abrash

I have been doing chemistry since the mid fifties, since my first introduction to research as a summer student visitor at the Brookhaven Laboratory. (An earlier course in qualitative analysis came close in its demands for a chemist’s eye, hand brain coordination.) I’ll use this as an excuse to ruminate on the course of chemistry during those fifty years.

If you except biochemistry and, in particular, the DNA revolution, not much seemed to be happening from the fifties through the seventies, and my answer to friends’ queries about what was new in chemistry was often “not much!” My field – physical organic chemistry – was a victim of its own success. In a relatively few years, it had answered most of the important questions regarding reaction mechanisms and, by the sixties, was involved in heated arguments about classical versus non-classical carbocations – a question that could not be answered with the experimental techniques available at the time.

Of course, things were moving in biochemistry and material sciences. I did my thesis research on the kinetics of enzyme catalyzed reactions. We would dream about altering the peptide sequences of enzymes to find out how that affected catalytic activity, but the chemistry involved was difficult and limited. Then biotechnology kicked in. I did several double takes when a seminar lecturer presented a single slide showing a half dozen altered peptide sequences, all prepared by DNA insertion and gene expression. X-ray crystallography grew from Kendrew’s myoglobin and Perutz’s hemoglobin structures to a nearly routine procedure in a few years. Protein conformations in solution can now be obtained from NMR data.

Then the silicon revolution got into full swing. I was aware of transistors and their usefulness but regarded solid state physics/material science as an arcane field peripheral to “real” chemistry. The first tube-based computer I worked with as a graduate student took up a large room and had less computing power than today’s hand held calculator. The cumbersome optics of an IR spectrometer have been replaced by a computer chip doing Fourier analysis. This has also changed biochemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry through computer modeling and small molecule docking.

And then there’s nanotechnology, and such wonders as the scanning tunneling electron microscope. If most of the practical results of this are still in the future, each issue of Chemical & Engineering News seems to bring amazing new discoveries. We live in great times!