Influential chemist & UCLA alumnus John D. (Jack) Roberts dies at 98

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John (Jack) Roberts (BA ’41, PhD ’44, Seaborg medalist ‘91) died on October 29, 2016, of complications following a stroke.

Roberts was one of the most influential chemists of the last 75 years, and his scientific education started at UCLA. A native of Los Angeles, Roberts was born on June 8, 1918. He graduated from Los Angeles High in 1936 along with his future wife, Edith. The two married in 1942. Roberts received his BA degree in 1941 and his PhD in 1944 (with William G. Young as research advisor); he continued at UCLA as an Instructor from 1944 to 1945, until he moved to Harvard on a National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship with Paul Bartlett.  Roberts then had a long career at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), not only doing great research and leading the organic chemical world into the use of quantum theory, NMR, and isotope effects to explore organic reaction mechanisms, but also attracting some of the best students and postdocs to Caltech to work with him. He also served Caltech in a variety of leadership roles that had a great impact on that university and on the chemical world in general. Throughout, he remained a great friend to and collaborator with UCLA. He was honored by UCLA with the UCLA Alumni Achievement Award in 1967 and the UCLA Seaborg Medal in 1991.

The UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry also honored Roberts this past spring at the John D. Roberts Inaugural Lecture, at which the establishment of the new John D. Roberts Endowed Chair in Chemistry was announced.  Roberts attended this event with his family, friends, and colleagues. The speaker, Ken Houk, Winstein Chair in our department, presented the highlights of Roberts’ career, and Marjorie Caserio, Chancellor Emerita at UCSD, told of Roberts’ extraordinary mentorship of several generations of Caltech students and faculty. Dean Miguel Garcia-Garibay announced UCLA’s commitment to match funds contributed to the Roberts Chair.

Roberts published more than 500 scientific papers, in all areas of the field of Physical Organic Chemistry. He explored the hidden pathways of organic reactions – how and why reactants arrive at their products, what intermediates are involved, and how the process is influenced by external conditions (catalysts, solvent, temperature, electromagnetic energy, and even reactant concentrations). The physical component has a focus on the relationship between molecular structure and reactivity through quantitative experimental and theoretical studies (reaction rates, substituent effects, spectroscopic analysis, and molecular orbital theory).

There is not one of these areas of Physical Organic Chemistry in which Roberts has not had a major impact.  His long list of honors and awards includes: every major award in organic chemistry offered through the American Chemical Society, namely, the Award in Pure Chemistry (1954); the Roger Adams Award (1967); the James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry (1979); the Priestley Medal (1987); and the Arthur C. Cope Award (1994). The National Academy of Sciences honored Roberts with the NAS Award in Chemical Sciences (1999) and the NAS Award for Chemistry in Service to Society (2009). He received The National Medal of Science and The Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry, both in 1990; the Glenn T. Seaborg Medal (1991); and the Chemical Pioneer Award of the American Institute of Chemists (1994). In 1972, he was appointed Institute Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology and, in 1988, Institute Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus. In 2013, The American Institute of Chemists bestowed their highest honor, the Gold Medal Award, in partnership with the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Roberts’ biography was published earlier this year: “John D. Roberts: In His Own Words and Those of His Friends”, Jeffrey I. Seeman, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2015, 54, 2–15.

At the reception following the May 19th John D. Roberts Inaugural Lecture, Roberts (center) with granddaughter Chelsea and son Dr. John Paul Roberts (Professor, Department of Surgery, and Chief, Division of Transplantation, UC San Francisco).

He is survived by his four children—Anne, Donald, John, and Allen—as well as nine grandchildren and one great grandchild. Three of his children are doctors, and the other is an electrical engineer and entrepreneur.

You can read more about Roberts in an in-depth biography on the Caltech website.

Prof. Ken Houk, UCLA Chemistry and Biochemistry Winstein Chair (Saul Winstein was one of Roberts’ teachers and colleagues at UCLA in the 40s) and Prof. Marjorie Caserio, Chancellor Emerita of UC San Diego and former member of the Roberts group at Caltech, spearheaded the fundraising for the John D. Roberts Endowed Chair in Chemistry.  “The Roberts Chair is to honor Roberts and his fantastic coworkers over the years,” said Houk, “and to recognize his pivotal role in fostering the Caltech-UCLA efforts to push back the frontiers of physical organic chemistry. We want to honor and perpetuate Jack Roberts’ legacy at UCLA and his extraordinary career at Caltech. This Chair recognizes the tremendous impact that he and his group had on the field and on countless lives in the scientific community. His name will be connected in perpetuity with the campus where he earned his degrees and where he was first inspired to pursue a career in chemistry.”

(From left) Miguel Garcia-Garibay, Marjorie Caserio, Jack Roberts, and Ken Houk.

Click here to contribute to the John D. Roberts Endowed Term Chair in Chemistry.

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Photos by Penny Jennings – UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry