BORON | Delivering his 1979 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Lecture, “From Little Acorns to Tall Oaks – From
Boranes through Organoboranes,” Purdue Chemistry Professor Herbert Brown expanded on poet David
Everett’s metaphor, predicting the equivalent of new continents in the study of boron compounds.
“We have only scratched the surface,” said Brown, who shared the prize with University of Heidelberg chemist
Georg Wittig for developing boron-and phosphorous-containing compounds into important reagents in
“It will require another generation of chemists to settle that continent and to utilize it for the good of
mankind,” Brown said. “But is there any reason to believe that this is the last continent of its kind? Surely not.”
He was right.
By the mid-1980s, Brown’s reagents had contributed to the development of Lipitor and Prozac, two
blockbuster pharmaceuticals that have helped revolutionize treatments for high cholesterol and depression
respectively. Brown’s impact continues today, says P. V. Ramachandran, a Purdue chemistry professor and
longtime Brown research associate who works in boron and fluorine chemistry.
“More and more chemists are contributing to the area of boron compounds, which has great impact in many
aspects of societal needs,” Ramachandran says. Among those needs are hydrogen research for alternate energy
and the use of organic synthetic methodologies to lower the cost of chemicals in electronics.
“The ‘boron continent’ that Brown discovered is getting populated with time,” Ramachandran says. | K.M.
Nobel Laureate’s Pioneering Work Lives On
HERBER T BROWN
“Why did I decide to undertake
my doctorate research in the
exotic field of boron hydrides? As
it happened, my girlfriend, Sarah
Baylen, soon to become my wife,
presented me with a graduation gift,
Alfred Stock’s book, The Hydrides
of Boron and Silicon. I read this
book and became interested in the
subject. How did it happen that she
selected this particular book? This
was the time of the Depression.
None of us had much money. It
appears 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.” – Herbert Brown
PHOTO BY DAVID UMBERGER