Childhood & Early Life
Jean-Marie Lehn was born on 30 September 1939, in Rosheim, a small medieval city of Alsace in France, to Pierre and Marie Lehn. He was the eldest of four sons in the family.
Pierre Lehn was a baker. However, he was quite interested in music and played the piano and the organ. Eventually, he became the city organist. Marie, on the other hand, took care of the shop with assistance from her eldest son.
He spent his childhood years during World War II in Rosheim and attended a primary school after the war ended. In 1950, he joined Collège Freppel high school in Obernai, a small town a little away from Rosheim. He studied Latin, Greek, English, German, French, Philosophy and Science, especially Chemistry.
Simultaneously, he also learnt to play the piano and the organ, and eventually music became an important part of his being. In July 1957, he left high school with a Baccalauréat in Philosophy, and in September 1957, he earned a Baccalauréat in Experimental Sciences as well.
He then joined the University of Strasbourg and initially considered studying Philosophy. However, he was undecided and hence began classes with courses in physical, chemical and natural sciences.
In the initial year, he cultivated an interest in organic chemistry to the extent that he set up a small laboratory at home and performed various experiments. In the second year, he attended the motivating lectures of a young professor named Guy Ourisson, and realized that research in organic chemistry was his true calling.
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After he received his Licencié-ès-Sciences (Bachelor degree), in October 1960, Jean-Marie Lehn joined Ourisson's laboratory as a member of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. There, he worked towards completing his Ph.D. research.
At Ourisson's laboratory, he was responsible for the lab’s first NMR spectrometer. He worked on conformational and physico-chemical properties of triterpenes. In 1961, he published his first scientific paper, which reported an additivity rule for substituent induced shifts of proton NMR signals in steroid derivatives.
He received his Ph.D degree in 1963 from the University of Strasbourg and soon after joined the laboratory of Robert Burns Woodward at Harvard University for a year, as a post-doctoral research fellow. Among other things, he worked on the synthesis of Vitamin B12.
At Woodward’s lab, he also followed a course in Quantum Mechanics and performed his first computations with Roald Hoffmann. In 1964, he had the opportunity to witness the initial stages of the Woodward-Hoffmann rules.
After he returned to Strasbourg in 1964, he started working in the field of physical organic chemistry, wherein he could combine the knowledge acquired in organic chemistry on physical methods and in quantum theory.
In 1966, he was appointed Maître de Conférences (Assistant Professor) at the Chemistry Department of the University of Strasbourg. Soon after, he set up his own laboratory. He continued in the position till 1969.
His main research topics were NMR studies of conformational rate processes, nitrogen inversion, quadrupolar relaxation, molecular motions and liquid structure, electronic structures, stereo electronic effects, etc. He further explored the physical properties of molecules, synthesizing compounds based on particular characteristic requirement.
In 1968, he was able to synthesize cage-like molecules, consisting of a hollow space inside where another molecule could be lodged. Moving forward, with the help of organic chemistry, he could create cages of desired shape, thus allowing only a certain type of molecule to fit itself inside. This was the foundation of a new field in chemistry, sensors.
Amplifying on Pedersen’s ‘crown ethers’, he discovered similar molecules that he called ‘Cryptands’. This led to the invention of ‘Supramolecular Chemistry’, which studied intermolecular attractions as compared to the bonds inside a molecule.
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He was promoted to the position of Associate Professor in early 1970 at University Louis Pasteur of Strasbourg, followed by Full Professor of Chemistry in October same year. He continued in the position till 1979.
Meanwhile, he was Visiting Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University in 1972 (spring), 1974 (spring), and on a part time basis till 1980. He was also Visiting Professor of Chemistry at the E.T.H. Zürich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) in 1977.
In October 1979, he was elected to the chair of ‘Chimie des Interactions Moléculaires’ at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris. Following Alain Horeau’s retirement in 1980, he became in charge of the chemistry laboratory at Collège de France, and subsequently divided his time between the two laboratories in Strasbourg and in Paris.
He was Alexander Todd Visiting Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge University in 1984, Visiting Professor of Chemistry at University of Barcelona in 1985, and the Rolf-Sammet Gastprofessor at Frankfurt University in 1985-86. .
In 1987, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Donald J. Cram and Charles J. Pedersen “for their development and use of molecules with structure-specific interactions of high selectivity”.
He was Heinrich-Hertz Gastprofessor at Karlsruhe University in November and December 1989, Robert Burns Woodward Visiting Professor at Harvard University in 1997 and again in 2000, and Newton Abraham Professor at Lincoln College, Oxford University in 1999-2000. He was also Adjunct Professor at the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok in 2005.
Throughout his long illustrious research career, along with his talented team, he has published over 900 scientific peer-reviewed papers and has authored three books.