Herbert C. Brown, 1912-2004

Herbert C. Brown

Today we remember Herbert C. Brown, who would have celebrated his centenary birthday last week.  Brown was an American chemist best known for his groundbreaking work on boron and for the 1979 Nobel Prize for Chemistry that he shared with Georg Wittig.

Throughout his scientific career, Brown researched a variety of topics in physical, inorganic, and organic chemistry. He studied aromatic substitution, molecular addition compounds, the reacceptance of steric effects, and the relation of borohydrides and diborane in organic synthesis. Possibly best known for his explorations of the role of boron in organic chemistry, he discovered that the simplest compound of boron and hydrogen, diborane, combines with remarkable ease to unsaturated organic molecules to yield organoboranes.

Brown was born on May 22, 1912 in London, England, to parents Charles Brovarnik and Pearl Gorinstein, and his last name was later anglicized. Charles and Pearl were Ukrainians who had moved to London as part of a wave of Jewish immigration to the UK. In 1914 the family moved again, to the United States, where Brown’s father sought out work as a cabinet maker.  As employment opportunities dried up with the onset of the Depression, the family opened their own small hardware store, which provided them with an income. The Browns lived in an apartment above the store while Herbert attended school.

Brown graduated from his primary school at age 12 and began high school at Englewood on the south side of Chicago. Only a short time later, Brown’s father passed away, forcing Herbert to drop out in order to assist with the running of the family business. “I’m afraid I neglected the business and spent a lot of time reading books,” Brown once said in an article published in Candid Science. Eventually Brown’s mother arranged for him to return to school and to work in the store in the afternoons.

Unable to find a job after graduation during rough economic times, Brown decided to go to Crane Junior College, where his intended major was electrical engineering. However, after taking only one chemistry class, Brown realized that this was his true passion.  Not long after, Crane Junior College was forced to close due to economic instabilities, forcing Brown to attend night school at the Lewis Institute and to work in a laboratory with a former Crane professor, Dr. Nicholas Cheronis, as well as several other students, including Sarah Baylen, who would become Brown’s wife.

In 1935 Brown and Baylen entered the University of Chicago, where he studied chemistry, completing his Ph.D. in 1938. As a graduation gift, Baylen gave him a book on the hydrides of boron and silicon.  Of the gift, he recalled

This was the time of the Depression, and none of us had much money. It appears that she selected as her gift the most economical chemistry book ($2.06) available in the University of Chicago bookstore. Such are the developments that can shape a career.

Falling into a teaching position because he was unable to find industrial work, Brown was hired at Chicago as an instructor, later becoming Hermann Schlesinger‘s research assistant. During his time at Chicago, Brown began corresponding with Linus Pauling, requesting expert advice and scientific counsel. Among other topics, Brown asked for Pauling’s expertise regarding experimental data, criticism and comments on manuscripts, and department emphases at Caltech.

In turn, Pauling wrote at least a few letters of recommendation for Brown, including one that helped land him two research grants of $1000 from the board of the American Philosophical Society. Having learned that Brown’s application was successful, Pauling was quick to offer his congratulations, writing, “I am very pleased that the American Philosophical Society is giving you support for your research; I am sure that it is a good investment on their part.”  Pauling also seems to have offered Brown a temporary position working at Caltech on a National Defense Research Committee contract during World War II, an offer that Brown was compelled to decline.

Though they did not often correspond at length about one another’s research agenda, a December 1944 letter from Pauling concerning Brown’s work on steric strains does indicate Pauling’s interest in and approval of Brown’s direction. “The results which you reported in your letter seem to me to be extremely interesting, and I trust that you will continue the work,” he wrote. “Your results on ethylene imine are especially interesting.”

Many years later, in 1968, the two connected again as Brown was awarded the Linus Pauling Medal, granted by the Pacific Northwest sections of the American Chemical Society, for outstanding achievements in the field.  Pauling himself was the first recipient of the medal, in 1966.

In 1943, worried about his ability to gain tenure as an instructor at Chicago, Brown decided to move to Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.  A few years later, the head of the chemistry department at Purdue University successfully recruited him into a new position as Professor of Inorganic Chemistry. Brown stayed at Purdue until his death in 2004.

In a 2005 obituary published in Angewandte Chemie, author George W. Kabalka summed up Herbert Brown’s scientific achievements:

Brown’s greatest contributions, for which he won the Nobel Prize, were in the application of boron reagents in organic chemistry. The simple observation in 1956 that the reduction of ethyl oleate by sodium borohydride in the presence of aluminum chloride consumed more hydride than expected formed the basis of an entirely new area of organometallic chemistry.

One major practical impact of Brown’s work was to immensely reduce the amount of time necessary to synthesize new compounds for testing as potential pharmaceuticals. Boranes, which Brown called “possibly the most useful intermediates currently available,” are now used in the synthesis of many organic compounds, including medications such as the antidepressant Prozac and the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor.

In his obituary, Kabalka also commented on Brown’s personal characteristics.  He was described as “a caring, calm, and optimistic man. He was not known to speak harshly of any colleague; he always endeavored to keep lines of communication open. His patience and optimism were legendary.”

Herbert C. Brown died of a heart attack on December 19, 2004 in Lafayette, Indiana at the age of 92. The Herbert C. Brown Laboratory of Chemistry, located on the Purdue University campus, is named in his honor.

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