Herbert C. Brown was an English-born American chemist who won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1979 for his work with organoboranes. He made several notable contributions to the field of organic chemistry, especially to organoboron chemistry or organoborane chemistry. The son of Jewish immigrants in London, he moved to the United States with his family when he was a toddler. He was a brilliant student from a young age and developed a voracious reading habit. An unfortunate incident during his high school years forced him to drop out but the determined boy persevered and completed his graduation. More difficulties followed during the Great Depression but Brown somehow continued his education and earned a B.S. in 1936, followed by a doctorate two years later. Married by now, he looked for a job but was unable to find a suitable one. Thus he was pushed into an academic career as a post-doctorate fellow and began his research in chemistry that would eventually lead to his seminal work with organoboranes. He worked along with Hermann Irving Schlesinger in his laboratory and the two men came up with significant discoveries for the National Defense Research Committee. Brown spent most of his academic career at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and retired in 1978.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born as Herbert Brovarnik on May 22, 1912, in London, England, UK. His parents, Charles Brovarnik and Pearl Gorinstein, were born in Zhitomir in the Ukraine and came to London in 1908. He had three sisters.
The family moved to the United States in 1914 where his father opened a small hardware store. Herbert went to the Haven School where he excelled in his studies. He then went to Englewood High School but was forced to drop out after the untimely death of his father in 1926.
He tried to manage his father’s business but realized that business held no interest for him. So he returned to school and graduated in 1930. The Great Depression was going on at that time and Brown was unable to find a good job. So, he decided to further his education.
He planned to major in electrical engineering but his interest soon shifted to chemistry. He had just completed one semester at Crane Junior College when it was announced in 1933 that the school was to be closed for lack of funds. Following this he went to night school at the Lewis Institute and also worked odd jobs to make ends meet.
During this time, one of his instructors at Crane opened his laboratory to several students so that they could continue their studies. Brown along with several others experimented there.
He joined the Wright Junior College in 1934 and graduated in 1935. He then entered the University of Chicago in the Fall of 1935 on a half scholarship and received the B.S. in 1936. He then proceeded to complete his doctorate in 1938.
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Married by now, Herbert C. Brown began looking for an industrial position but was unable to find one. At this time, Professor M.S. Kharasch offered him a position as a post doctorate at a stipend of $1600 which he accepted.
In 1939, Herbert C. Brown was invited by Professor Schlesinger to become his research assistant with the rank of an instructor at the University of Chicago. The duo began their research on volatile, low molecular weight uranium compounds for the National Defense Research Committee.
Their collaboration was a successful one and they were able to synthesize volatile uranium (IV) borohydride, which had a molecular weight of 298. Their research also led to the discovery that lithium hydride reacts with boron trifluoride in ethyl ether, allowing them to produce diborane in larger quantities.
During the World War II, Brown and Schlesinger discovered a method for producing sodium borohydride (NaBH4), which can be used to produce boranes (compounds of boron and hydrogen). This work led to the development of the first general method for producing asymmetric pure enantiomers.
After working for four years at Chicago, he moved to the Wayne University in Detroit as an assistant professor. He was promoted to associate professor in 1946.
In 1947 he moved to the Purdue University as a professor of inorganic chemistry. He spent the rest of academic career there and became a Professor Emeritus in 1978. He was also an honorary member of the International Academy of Science.
Brown was renowned for his works with organoboranes or organoboron compounds which are chemical compounds of boron and carbon that are organic derivatives of BH3. He is credited to have discovered the concept that boranes react rapidly to alkenes in a process called hydroboration.
Awards & Achievements
In 1979, Herbert C. Brown and Georg Wittig were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for their development of the use of boron- and phosphorus-containing compounds, respectively, into important reagents in organic synthesis"
He was also the recipient of other prestigious awards like Priestley Medal (1981), Perkin Medal (1982), AIC Gold Medal (1985), and NAS Award in Chemical Sciences (1987).
Personal Life & Legacy.
He met and fell in love with Sarah Baylen while they were both students. The couple tied the knot in 1937 and were blessed with one child. They were happily married until Brown’s death.
Herbert C. Brown suffered a heart attack and died on December 19, 2004, at the age of 92.