The Sceptical Chymist | ACS:…and Villains?

Published in Chemistry

So the theme of my meeting continues.

Yesterday, I spent much of the day in the Robert Burns Woodward (RBW) memorial symposium. The talks were from those who have previously worked with RBW with a particular emphasis on how his philosophy has affected their own research. It’s tough to imagine what modern organic chemistry would be without him.

One talk in particular stood out and – from the number of attendees – not just for me either: Jeffrey Seeman’s ‘Was plagiarism involved in the development of the Woodward-Hoffmann rules?’. It’s not hard to imagine why…as Seeman pointed out, this is probably the first time the word plagiarism has appeared in the title of a talk at the ACS!

A little background for the uninitiated. The Woodward-Hoffmann rules explain the stereoselectivity of electrocyclisation reactions. The name of the rules is derived from the two chemists who first explained the observed reactivity patterns in the literature. Hoffmann received a share of the 1981 Nobel prize in Chemistry (Woodward would likely have received a second Nobel prize but had died two years previously). But, in 2004 Elias Corey – also by that time a Nobel laureate – claimed that he had provided RBW with the initial idea.

The presentation was fascinating – Seeman has analyzed personal letters and notebooks from Woodward, Hoffmann and Corey, and spoken at some length with Roald Hoffmann. I simply cannot provide the full details here so anyone interested should look out for Seeman’s (future) publication of this analysis – he says he’d like it to be an article but it will probably be a book – either way it should make excellent reading.

The main conclusion, however, was that we can’t know for sure what happened. Only two people really know, and one of them is no longer with us. Seeman says that he feels Corey is recalling the events exactly as he remembers them. Hoffmann for his part had asked Woodward at the time if Corey was involved and the answer was a very clear ‘No’. From a man known for meticulously assigning credit in his other work, it seems unlikely that he acted differently here.

The more important point to take away from this session though is to be very careful when assigning credit. It’s certainly an very emotional issue – even for three people who will remain as heroes of chemistry whatever the truth in this particular case.


Stephen Davey (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

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