Robert Grubbs (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

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.”

“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.”

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.

Alexander Lefterov/Endpoints News

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