Childhood & Early Life
He was born on July 12, 1928, in Methuen, Massachusetts, United States, to Christian Lebanese immigrants Elias Corey and his wife Fatina Hasham Corey. His name was changed by his mother to Elias after his father, who passed away when he was a toddler of 18 months.
He was raised in a spacious house in a family that consisted of his mother, uncle, aunt, brother and two sisters. He studied in a Catholic elementary school and thereafter at the ‘Lawrence High School’ in Massachusetts. He was quite a sports enthusiast as a young boy and played football, baseball and did hiking.
Corey joined ‘Massachusetts Institute of Technology’ (MIT), Cambridge, Massachusetts, at 16 and obtained BS in Organic Chemistry in 1948.
Accepting an invitation of Professor John C. Sheehan, a distinguished American organic chemist, he stayed back at ‘MIT’ to pursue his postgraduate doctoral studies. In 1951 he earned PhD in Chemistry from the institute under the guidance of Professor Sheehan.
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Starting from 1950 the Corey group lab, which have become a conventional place of research and development associated with the field of modern synthetic organic chemistry, have developed around 300 procedures.
In 1951 he was inducted as a teacher of Organic Chemistry at the ‘University of Illinois’ at Urbana-Champaign. His career advanced in the university and he became a full Professor of Chemistry at the university in 1956 and served the position till 1959. Meanwhile in 1952 he was inducted as a Zeta Chapter member of ‘Alpha Chi Sigma’ at the university.
During his tenure at the ‘University of Illinois’ he initiated his research on synthesis and structure of substances.
He developed a number of new synthetic reactions. Among these were pyridinium chlorochromate (PCC) also referred as Corey-Suggs reagent. It is applied widely for alcohol oxidation to corresponding aldehydes and ketones.
His development of popular alcohol protecting groups like methoxyethoxymethyl (MEM), triisopropylsilyl ether (TIPS) and t-Butyldimethylsilyl ether (TBS) made synthesis of numerous natural products possible that are devoid of the functional group compatibility to endure standard chemical alterations.
He also initiated intensive examination on cationic polyolefin cyclizations employed in enzymatic generation of cholesterol out of simpler plant terpenes.
Many reagents are named after him like Corey-Fuchs alkyne synthesis, Corey-Winter olefination, Corey-Itsuno reduction and Corey–Kim oxidation.
For over 50 years, he has been serving as an advisor to American global pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer Inc. He is also a long-term consultant of Syntex/Roche Palo Alto and serves Pherin Pharmaceuticals, Inc. as Member of the Advisory Board. From January 2004, he served Ironwood Pharmaceuticals Inc. as a Member of Pharmaceutical Advisory Committee.
In 1957 he received a Guggenheim Foundation scholarship and became a Fellow of the ‘Harvard University’ and in 1958 a Fellow of ‘Royal Caroline Institute’.
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‘Harvard University’ inducted Corey as Professor of Chemistry in 1959 and since then he has been dedicatedly serving the university for over five decades. At present he is a professor emeritus of Organic Chemistry and holds an active Corey Group research program.
He and his team of researchers at the Corey group have completed numerous total syntheses, which include those of prostaglandins conducted in 1969 that are thought-out as classics. The other notable syntheses of the group include Ecteinascidin 743, Salinosporamide A, Miroestrol, Ginkgolides A and B, Lactacystin and Longifolene.
He remained a member of the ‘American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ from 1960 to 1968 and that of the ‘American Association for the Advancement of Science’ in 1966. Corey is an elected member of the ‘National Institutes of Medicine’ and the ‘National Academy of Sciences’.
In 1965 he pioneered the 1,3-Dithianes as an interim alteration of a carbonyl group in addition and displacement reagents.
In 1998 he was elected a ‘Foreign Member of the Royal Society’ (ForMemRS).
He has penned down over 1100 papers that have been featured in peer-reviewed scientific journals and was recognised as "Most Cited Author in Chemistry" by ‘American Chemical Society’ (ACS) in 2002. Further he received the first ACS Publications Division ‘Cycle of Excellence High Impact Contributor Award’ in 2007. The Hirsch Index (h-index) ranked him as the numero uno chemist with regard to research impact.
Two of his notable books are ‘The Logic of Chemical Synthesis’ (1995) along with Xue-Min Cheng; and ‘Molecules and Medicine’ (2008) along with Barbara Czako and Laszlo Kurti.
Some of his distinguished students like K. C. Nicolaou, Ryōji Noyori, William L. Jorgensen, David E. Cane and Phil Baran went on to achieve great heights. However at one point of time his image was tarnished by a controversy that cropped up following suicide of one of his students Jason Altom. Altom clearly put the blame on Corey, his research advisor for his suicide. Nevertheless the article issued by ‘New York Times’ about the incident was cited by ‘American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’ (AFSP) as an instance of problematic reporting and it opinionated that Corey was unfairly made a scapegoat.
Till 2008 he was conferred with 19 honorary degrees by numerous universities across the world including ‘Cambridge University’, UK; ‘Oxford University’, UK; and ‘National Chung Cheng University’, Taiwan.
The E.J. Corey Institute of Biomedical Research (CIBR) was opened in Jiangyin, China in 2013.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Claire Higham in September 1961 and is blessed with three children.
His eldest son David, born in 1963, is a ‘Harvard University’ graduate and a PhD holder from ‘University of California’, Berkeley. David is presently associated with University of California Medical School at San Francisco as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Chemistry/Molecular Biology.
John, his second son, born in 1965, is also a graduate from ‘Harvard University’ and is presently pursuing advanced studies in classical music composition at the ‘Conservatoire de Paris’.
His only daughter Susan, born in 1967, a graduate in anthropology from ‘Harvard University’ wishes to pursue graduate work in Education.