Childhood & Early Life
Robert Burns Woodward was born on April 10, 1917, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Arthur Chester Woodward, died of influenza pandemic one year after his birth. Although his mother, Margaret (née Burns), remarried she was soon abandoned by her second husband. Thus, Robert was brought up singlehandedly by his mother.
He began his education at a public primary school. Later, he was admitted to Quincy High School, a public secondary school located in the suburbs of Boston. However, he was mostly an autodidact and read widely at home.
His thrust for knowledge was such that, in 1928, he procured chemistry journals from Verlag Chemie through the German Consul-General in Boston. Then by the age of fourteen, he bought Ludwig Gattermann’s Practical Methods of Organic Chemistry and performed all the experiments mentioned in the book on his own.
In 1933, Woodward entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here too, he neglected the formal study courses, concentrating only on chemistry. As a result, he was excluded from the 1934 fall semester.
Not wanting to lose such a bright student, James Flack Norris, an organic chemistry professor, intervened on his behalf. He made sure that Woodward would be allowed to sit for the examinations without attending classes. Accordingly, he was readmitted in the MIT in the fall semester of 1935.
Woodward received his B.S degree in 1936 and his PhD in 1937. His doctoral thesis dealt with estrone, which is a female steroid hormone. The research resulted in the publication of several papers in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1940 .
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In summer of 1937, Robert Burns Woodward began his career as a post doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois; but within six months, he shifted to the Harvard University as Junior Fellow. He remained with the Harvard University till his death in 1979.
His Fellowship ended in 1938. In the same year, he was accepted as a Member of the Society of Fellow. The position offered him freedom to pursue his research work independently. On the flip side, he needed collaborators to carry on his experiments, which the position did not allow.
Therefore in 1941, he accepted the position of the Instructor of Chemistry. Around this time, Woodworth published a few important papers on the correlation between ultraviolet spectra and structure. It later led to the formation of ‘Woodward’s Rules’.
However, it was not yet sure if he would have any long term engagement at Harvard and so he considered shifting to California Institute of Technology, Pasadena or University of California, Barkley. But, he did not have to make any such move; opportunity came from an unusual source.
In 1942, Edwin Land, the founder and head of the Polaroid Corporation, offered him the opportunity to work on quinine. It was a key ingredient for the production of their light polarizing sheets and films, but its supply was affected by the ongoing Second World War.
In the same year, Woodworth created a chemically simple, light-polarizing replacement for quinine. Afterwards, he asked Land to support him for synthesizing quinine. The work was started in February 1943.
Building on Paul Rabe’s 1908 work, Woodworth and his collaborators completed the synthesis of their key intermediate, quinotoxine, on 10 April 1944. It made him internationally famous and acted as a catalyst in his career.
Also in 1944, Woolworth was appointed as an Assistant Professor at the Harvard University. Subsequently, he began to work on syntheses of patulin (an antibiotic), morphine, protein, and other materials, which had industrial use. In the same year, he also proposed β-lactam formula for penicillin.
In 1946, Woodworth became an Associate Professor, remaining in that position till 1950. During this period, his attention was turned to steroid, on which he had worked as a doctoral student. In spite of his shift in his interest he was able to determine the structure of strychnine in 1947 and patulin in 1948.
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In 1950, he became a full professor and in 1951, he was able to synthesize cortisone and cholesterol. At that time, many other scientists were working on the cortisone, vying with each other to be the first to synthesize this ‘miracle drug’; ultimately it was Woodworth, who won the race.
In 1953, he was elected as the Morris Loeb Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University, a position he held till 1960. Also, in 1953, he determined the structure of terramycin.
Next in 1954, he determined the structure of strychnine and lanosterol and also synthesized these two products. His work on strychnine was also done under immense international competition.
Subsequently in 1956, he determined the structure of reserpine and also synthesized the product. It is said to be his first major work, which not only solved the problem of the shortage of raw material, but also led to its industrial production.
From 1958 to 1964, he worked on gliotoxin, ellipticine, calycanthine, oleandomycin, streptonigri, and tetrodotoxin, successfully determining their structure. These works remain a milestone in the field of organic chemistry.
Meanwhile in 1960, he performed total synthesis of chlorophyll. Next from 1962 to 1965, he synthesized tetracycline, colchicine, and cephalosporin C.
In 1963, he became the Donner Professor of Science and at the same time he assumed the dual responsibility of directing the Woodward Research Institute at Basel. Also in 1960s, he worked as Consultant for Polaroid’s development of color photographic processes.
His second major work, which concerned the synthesis of Vitamin B-12, also began in the early 1960s. In this work, he collaborated with Albert Eschenmoser of Zurich. A team of almost 100 students and postdoctoral fellows worked for years on this project before it was synthesized in 1973.
Also in 1973, based on observations made during the B12 synthesis, he and Roald Hoffmann devised rules for elucidating the stereochemistry of the products of organic reactions. It is now known as Woodward-Hoffmann rules. However, he did not stop there, but continued to work till his end.
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At the time of his death in 1979, he was working on the synthesis of erythromycin. Apart from his research work, Woodward authored/co-authored more than 200 publications and trained more or less the same number of doctoral or post doctoral students, many of whom went on to become distinguished academics later.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1938, Robert Woodward married Irja Pullman. The couple had two daughters: Siiri Anna and Jean Kirsten.
Later in 1946, Woodward married Eudoxia Muller, a chemistry researcher and an established artist. They had a daughter, Crystal Elisabeth and a son, Eric Richard Arthur. The marriage ended in a divorce in 1972.
Woodward was a heavy smoker and often lighted his second cigarette from the first. He slept very little and worked from noon till 3 AM in the morning.
He died on July 8, 1979 from heart attack at Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Woodward's rules, which bear his legacy, are sets of empirically derived rules which try to predict the wavelength of the absorption maximum in an ultraviolet–visible spectrum of a specific compound.
The Woodward–Hoffmann rules, also named after Robert Burns Woodward and his collaborator Roald Hoffmann, predict the barrier heights of pericyclic reactions based upon conservation of orbital symmetry.