Childhood & Early Life:
Roald Hoffmann was born on 18 July 1937, at Zloczów, in Poland in a Jewish family. His mother, Clara (Rosen), was a teacher and his father, Hillel Safran, was a civil engineer.
With the German invasion of Poland, his family was forced to go to a labour camp. Hoffmann, his mother, two uncles, and an aunt were able to escape from the camp by bribing the guards. The family spent eighteen months, from January 1943 to June 1944, by hiding in the attic and a storeroom of the local schoolhouse.
His father remained at the labour camp and was eventually killed by the Germans. His mother later remarried and his stepfather’s name was Paul Hoffmann.
In 1946, Hoffmann’s family shifted to Czechoslovakia from Poland. From there they travelled across Austria, Germany and Munchen finally migrating to the United States of America in 1949.
In 1955, he completed his high school education from Stuyvesant High School in New York. He was the recipient of the Westinghouse science scholarship. He subsequently enrolled into the Columbia University and received his B.A., summa cum laude, majoring in chemistry in 1958.
Roald Hoffmann joined Harvard University for his graduate studies, and in 1960 obtained an M.A degree in Physics and a PhD in Chemical Physics in 1962.
In 1962, he accepted a Junior Fellowship in the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He remained here for three years, during which he shifted his area of interest to organic chemistry, and studied the structural and mechanistic problems in organic molecules.
Between 1962 and 1965, he conducted research on the extended Hückel method, and worked on the development of a semi-empirical method of calculation of the electronic structure of molecules. Towards the end of his fellowship, he collaborated with chemist R. B. Woodward to further study the theory of concerted reactions.
Continue Reading Below
He conducted extensive studies utilizing qualitative, hypothetical, pragmatic and computational methods to understand the electronic structure of stable as well as unstable molecules along with the changes in states during reactions.
Beginning in 1963, he developed the extended Hückel method, a partly empirical quantum chemistry method. It was based on the Hückel molecular orbital method proposed by Erich Hückel in 1930. The extended method could be used to determine molecular orbitals and the relative energy of various geometric configurations.
In 1965, he along with organic chemist Robert Burns Woodward formulated a set of rules in organic chemistry, forecasting the barrier heights of pericyclic reactions based on the conservation of organic symmetry.
Initially developed to understand the stereospecificity of electrocyclic reactions in controlled thermal and photochemical conditions, the rules can be used to understand sigmatropic reactions, group transfer reactions, electrocyclic reactions and cycloadditions.
In 1965, he was appointed as Associate Professor at the Department of Chemistry at Cornell University. He became Professor in 1968 and in 1974 was made the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science.
In 1990, he hosted a television series titled ‘The World of Chemistry’ that explored topics in chemistry through various experiments and interviews.
Roald Hoffmann is also a poet and his works were published as part of his collections, namely, ‘The Metamict State’ (1987), ‘Gaps and Verges’ (1990), ‘Memory Effects’ and ‘Soliton’. A skilled playwright, his works include: ‘Should’ve’ (2006) and ‘We Have Something That Belongs to You’ (2009), a play that is based on his experiences in the holocaust. He has co-authored the play ‘Oxygen’ with Carl Djerassi.
He is the author of the books ‘Roald Hoffmann on the Philosophy, Art, and Science of Chemistry’, ‘Beyond the Finite: The Sublime in Art and Science’ and ‘The Same and Not the Same’ (1995) and ‘Chemistry Imagined’. His books attempt to understand the connection between science and art.
In 1997 W.H. Freeman published the work by Shira Leibowitz Schmidt and Roald Hoffmann, titled ‘Old Wine, New Flasks; Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition’. The book was later translated to Spanish.
Continue Reading Below
Since 1996, he is the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Emeritus, at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York.
Awards and Achievements
Roald Hoffmann received the 1969 American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry.
In 1973, he received the Arthur C. Cope Award in Organic Chemistry.
Roald Hoffmann and Kenichi Fukui jointly won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, "for their theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions".
He was honoured with the National Medal of Science by the President of the United States in 1983.
In 1984, he was elected as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society.
In 1990, he was awarded the Priestley Medal by the American Chemical Society.
He was elected the Harvard Centennial Medalist in 1994 and awarded with the Pimentel Award in Chemical Education in 1996.
In 1997, he received of the E.A. Wood Science Writing Award.
In 2006, the American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal was given to Roald Hoffmann.
He is the recipient of the 2009 James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry.