Remembering Henry Taube


Four Nobel Prize-winning chemists with a connection to Stanford University. From left, Arthur Kornberg, Paul Flory, Henry Taube, and Linus Pauling. This photo was taken in 1983 on the day that Taube received notification of his having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

[Ed Note: This is our final post for 2015.  Thanks for reading and please check back in early January for more!]

This month marks the 32nd anniversary of Henry Taube’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, awarded for ‘Electron Transfer between Metal Complexes.’ His seminal paper on the subject was 30 years old when he received the Nobel Prize, but the correlation that he described in it remained the predominant theory at the time of his receipt of the Nobel medal. Taube would have turned 100 this past November 30th , 2015. He died in 2005 in his home in Palo Alto, California at 89 years old.

Linus Pauling, for many years a friend of Taube, wrote to him in 1983 to congratulate him on his prize, calling it a “fine honor.” Pauling also kept a newspaper clipping announcing Taube’s Nobel in a collection of his personal memorabilia. In it, Taube attributed his success in Stockholm to a “domino theory” of scientific awards: once they started coming, you just seemed to get more of them. “I have to pay for it by giving a speech,” Taube said.  And indeed, Taube received numerous other decorations, including the Priestley Medal in 1985.

Born in the small town of Neudorf, Saskatchewan, Henry Taube was the youngest of four boys. The son of German immigrants who moved from the Ukraine and settled in Canada in 1911, Taube reflected fondly on his experiences growing up, noting

Certainly, there is nothing about my first 21 years in Saskatchewan, taken in the context of those times, that I would wish to be changed. The advantages that I enjoyed include: the marvelous experience of growing up on a farm, which taught me an appreciation of nature, and taught me also to discipline myself to get necessary jobs done.

Two years after the completion of his PhD at UC Berkeley in 1940, Taube became a naturalized citizen of the United States. As a young academic, he began studying the chemistry and photochemistry of non-metallic oxidants such as ozone, hydrogen peroxide, and halogens, and their reactions with a variety of inorganic and organic substances. Taube also worked on the subject of electron transfer in chemical reactions for most of his professional life, stating in his Nobel lecture that,

by an accident of history, I was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, about the time the first natal stirrings of [this] subject occurred, and at a place where those stirring were most active.

His interest in the measurement of the rates of self-exchange reactions was shared by many, but not reflected in research or development for years to come. Students who might have harbored plans to carry out such experiments, Taube later pointed out, became engaged in war-related activities instead.

Taube’s first academic appointment was as an assistant professor at Cornell, where he engaged in the study of oxidation-reduction reactions, or redox reactions. In 1943 he began his correspondence with Linus Pauling, asking him to visit Cornell and deliver a lecture on antibody reactions, one of Pauling’s areas of specialty at the time. Pauling declined, stating that he would not be traveling in the vicinity of Ithaca any time soon. Taube tried again to meet with Pauling while on a trip to UCLA in 1949, but Pauling was out of his office.

It is something of an irony that Taube, anxious to connect with such an eminent figure in chemistry, would become the chair of a department where Pauling would work later in life. While the pair did not have much luck connecting in the 1940s, forty years later they would regard one another as close companions.


As an associate professor at the University of Chicago, Taube studied charge transfer complexes, describing metal-ligand bonds in terms of molecular orbital language. As a result, the new field of mixed-valence compounds began to develop. Taube’s continued study in this area united the divergent disciplines of classical coordination chemistry and organometallic chemistry, bringing inorganic chemistry into a more modern age.

Taube’s contributions were notable as confusion between thermodynamic and kinetic stability of coordination compounds had plagued coordination chemistry for decades, hindering theoretical advancement in the field. Classical coordination chemistry was created by Alfred Werner in 1893, with little groundbreaking work in the area come to pass in the four decades following. At this same time, organic and biological chemistry were progressing in exciting ways, in no small part due to work being conducted by Linus Pauling. Indeed, in organic chemistry, Pauling’s influence is ubiquitous: the mechanisms of organic substitution reactions, the discovery of biochemical cycles and molecular disease, the role of vitamins and antibiotics – all were touched by his genius. But for inorganic chemistry, even Pauling’s valence bond theory did not prompt advancement. This all began to change with Henry Taube.

By shifting focus from classical coordination chemistry toward the mechanisms of redox reactions, Taube affected an important shift that revitalized inorganic chemistry. Specifically, Taube established a dichotomy between inert and labile complexes, using valence bond theory to frame the definitions of these metal ions. The effect on inorganic chemistry was so monumental, it has since been dubbed by some as the “Taube Revolution.” Published in 1952, Taube’s “Rates and Mechanism of Substitution Reactions in Inorganic Complexes in Solution” is a foundational work. This was an important personal year for Taube as well; it was the year that he married his wife, Mary. They would have four children; Karl, Heinrich, Linda and Marianna.

By the early 1970s, Taube was chairman of the Chemistry Department at Stanford University, where Pauling too was a faculty member. When Pauling was reclassified as an emeritus member of the faculty in 1972, a memo from Taube to Calvin Quate, the associate dean of humanities and sciences at Stanford, made his opinion of Pauling’s situation clear: “Linus Pauling’s contributions to our department are much valued,” Taube clarified for Quate. “It is the intention of the Executive Committee to recommend reappointment on a year-by-year basis for as long as he continues to be effective in supervising a research program.”

The following year, Pauling wrote to Taube to express concern about his position. In his response, Taube pointed out that, though now classified as a professor emeritus, the administration’s action did not change Pauling’s current appointment as regular faculty, which would remain in force until 1974. After that time, as indicated by Taube in his memo to Quate, Pauling would continue to be reappointed as long as he remained “productive in scientific work.” Taube added, “I feel confident that the change in nominal status next fall will not interfere with your scientific program.”

Over the years, the two men enjoyed a lively correspondence on many issues related to work and pleasure. Taube sent Pauling reprints of his papers, and asked Pauling just before receiving his Nobel Prize, “When you first formulated your ideas on back bonding, did you have any inkling of what its ramifications might be?” (in this, Taube was referring to his own work with redox reactions in metal complexes.) Taube added, “After things settle down, post-Stockholm, Mary and I hope to get together with you again socially.”

Taube also referred to Pauling as the living person whom he most admired, and the two saw eye to eye on many issues. In particular, Taube used his position as a Nobel laureate to argue for educational reform and nuclear disarmament, which he saw as the country’s most important issues in the 1980s. “I’m appalled not that the general public tends to be rather ignorant,” Taube explained, “but they don’t even care about the scientific issues.” All informed citizens, Taube thought, needed to know the basics, and in this he agreed with Pauling. “The training that science teachers get simply isn’t adequate for the job in the elementary schools,” he said. “The solution is to improve science teaching for teachers, and pay them a wage commensurate with their responsibilities.”

taube in lab

Though in many ways Taube is to inorganic chemistry what Pauling was to the organic side, Taube’s work has also been described as setting the stage for electron transfer studies in organic areas, including peptides, proteins, and other complex biomolecules –  all areas of study crucial to many of Pauling’s interests. This is presumably one reason why Pauling recruited Taube to support the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine.

The connection between Taube and the Institute began very early on, in 1972, when Pauling suggested to him that some of Taube’s graduate students might be interested in also working on orthomolecular studies with either himself or his assistant, Arthur B. Robinson. Twelve years later, in 1984, Pauling wrote to Taube asking him to join the Institute’s board of associates. Taube accepted, despite the fact that the Institute was involved in a very public battle with the Mayo Clinic, one based on what Pauling described in his letter as, “a thoroughly misleading account of [the Institute’s] work.”

In 1987 Pauling asked his friend to become even more involved, writing that he was pleased to tell him that the Board of Trustees had authorized him to ask Taube to join their rank and file. Taube accepted this position as well, but ultimately resigned in 1989, stating that he could “provide little help in solving the kind of [largely financial] problem that the Institute faces,” and that he believed he was “usurping an opportunity for service which others, of greater influence in financial or medico-scientific circles, could better fill.” Pauling was disappointed and disagreed with the decision, but responded simply that it would not otherwise impact Taube’s connection to the Institute.

Henry Taube’s love of chemistry and the impact that he made on the field seemed sometimes unbelievable to the man himself. Humble by nature, Taube offered in his Nobel lecture that he had only, “focused rather narrowly on electron transfer reactions between metal complexes.”

While Pauling and many others recognized and cited the importance of his work in developing a general principle of electron transfer, Taube remained much more cautious in his assessment. The principles that he had derived, Taube pointed out, manifested differently in different materials and reactions. Consequently, the descriptive chemistry of such relationships could be quite different.

Nonetheless, Taube saw these differing manifestations as an exciting challenge, describing them in his Nobel lecture as “the fabric of chemistry.”  In this love of scientific inquiry and the quest for a better understanding of the natural world, Taube was once again reunited with his close friend, Linus Pauling.