Pioneering chemist and Caltech professor Robert Grubbs passes away at 79 years old
Nobel laureate and Caltech professor Robert Grubbs passed away on Sunday — a legendary chemist who was an “equally remarkable husband, father, grandfather, friend, and colleague,” according to Dennis Dougherty, a fellow Caltech professor.
He was 79.
Grubbs is perhaps best known for developing the metathesis method in organic synthesis — a feat that earned him and two other chemists (Richard Schrock and Yves Chauvin) a Nobel Prize in 2005. Metathesis, which means “change places,” is a type of chemical reaction in which double bonds between carbon atoms are broken and reorganized at the same time as atomic groups change place. Around 1992, Grubbs discovered a metallic compound that effectively facilitates metathesis, and is stable in the air.
The method has led to more effective and efficient industrial and pharmaceutical processes that leave behind less waste.
“Bob was an inspiration to Caltech colleagues and to scientists around the world, for his human qualities as much as for his pathbreaking contributions to research and society. We will keenly miss his wisdom and vision,” Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum said in a statement.
On Monday, former students and colleagues took to Twitter to share their condolences.
“Such sad news and huge loss to our community,” University of Minnesota professor Theresa Reineke posted. “Bob was a fabulously creative scientist, awesome mentor to his students, and highly valued family- just a flat out amazing and welcoming human. He will always be a hero of mine.”
Such sad news and huge loss to our community. Bob was a fabulously creative scientist, awesome mentor to his students, and highly valued family- just a flat out amazing and welcoming human. He will always be a hero of mine. My sincere condolences to the Grubbs family. https://t.co/7uzRVjUiWJ
— Theresa M. Reineke (@Theresa_Reineke) December 19, 2021
“Bob Grubbs was an amazing person, generous mentor, brilliant scientist and loyal family man,” UCLA professor Heather Maynard tweeted. “I am so fortunate he was my PhD advisor. Such a tremendous loss. My thoughts are with his family and the entire@Caltech/Chemistry/Grubbs community during this difficult time.”
Bob Grubbs was an amazing person, generous mentor, brilliant scientist and loyal family man. I am so fortunate he was my PhD advisor. Such a tremendous loss. My thoughts are with his family and the entire @Caltech /Chemistry/Grubbs community during this difficult time. pic.twitter.com/w5oYqQuagu
— Heather D Maynard (@HeatherDMaynard) December 20, 2021
Grubbs was born in rural Kentucky in 1942, in the house his father built, he wrote in his Nobel biography. Both his parents were from small farm families, and childhood jobs hauling hay and cutting tobacco at other farms led him to pursue a degree in agricultural chemistry at the University of Florida. One of his summer jobs was in an animal nutrition laboratory analyzing steer feces — then a friend brought him to an organic chemistry lab, which smelled better and “saved me from a life of analyzing animal matter,” he wrote.
Grubbs worked in the lab of Merle Battiste, who was at the time a new faculty member at the University of Florida. While Grubbs always had a knack for building things — he’d use his money to buy nails instead of candy as a kid — building molecules was even more fun, he said.
He graduated with his master’s in organic chemistry in 1965, then went on to Columbia University to pursue his PhD while working with Ron Breslow. During his second year, he met his wife Helen O’Kane, who was his “best friend since that time.” They have three children, Barney, Brendan and Kathleen.
In 1969, as he was finishing up his fellowship, Michigan State University was the only school that offered him a position. It was there that he started his work in olefin metathesis. In 1978, he moved to Caltech, and the rest is history. He’s worked with more than 200 students and postdoctoral fellows, according to his biography.
“Bob’s passing creates a huge hole in the CCE Division, Caltech, and, indeed, the entire world of science,” Dougherty said.