Caltech’s John D. Roberts Awarded Gold Medal in Pasadena Now

John D. Roberts

John D. Roberts

July 29, 2013 - Pasadena, CA

By Brian Bell

John D. Roberts, Institute Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) received the 2013 American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal. The AIC awarded the medal to Roberts at the Heritage Day event in April in Philadelphia hosted by its awarding partner, the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF).

The AIC established the Gold Medal, its highest award, in 1926 to recognize service to the science of chemistry and to the profession of chemist and chemical engineer in the United States. The Gold Medal has been presented jointly by the AIC and the CHF since 2003.

“I am very honored to have been selected to receive the American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal,” Roberts says. “Throughout my career, I have been fortunate in being able to collaborate with the world’s leading researchers, study and teach in highly respected institutions, and participate in some of the most important scientific discoveries since the middle of the 20th century.”

Roberts is an expert on the leading research into the mechanisms of organic reactions, the chemistry of small ring compounds, and applications of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to organic chemistry and biochemistry. He serves on the boards of directors of Organic Syntheses Inc. and University Science Books, and was a consultant to DuPont from 1950 to 2008.

Roberts received his Ph.D. in chemistry from UCLA in 1944. Following a period as an instructor in chemistry there, Roberts was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship at Harvard University in 1945. He joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1946, becoming an associate professor by 1950. In 1953, Roberts became a professor of organic chemistry at Caltech. In 1972, he was appointed Institute Professor of Chemistry and in 1988, Institute Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus and Lecturer. From 1980 to 1983 he served Caltech as vice president, provost, and dean of the faculty.

In addition to his many scientific achievements and chemistry lab discoveries, Roberts also was responsible for breaking the longstanding gender barrier at Caltech by sponsoring Dorothy Semenow (PhD ’55) to become the Institute’s first female doctoral candidate in 1953. Bringing Semenow from MIT to study at Caltech is “clearly the best thing I have done at Caltech in the 60 years I have been here,” he says.

Roberts is a recipient of the American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry (1954), the Priestley Medal (1987), the National Medal of Science and the Welch Award in Chemistry (both in 1990), the Glenn T. Seaborg Medal (1991), the Chemical Pioneer Award of the American Institute of Chemists and the Arthur C. Cope Award of the American Chemical Society (both in 1994), the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences (1999), and the National Academy of Sciences Award for Chemistry in Service to Society (2009).

In 1998, Chemical & Chemical Engineering News named him as one of the 75 most influential chemists in the last 75 years. In 2008, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and in 2009, Fellow of the American Chemical Society. He is a member of the American Chemical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Roberts is the author, with M. C. Caserio, of Basic Principles of Organic Chemistry (1965 and 1977 editions) and has written other textbooks on NMR and Hückel molecular orbital calculations, and more than 500 scientific papers. ACS Books published his autobiography, The Right Place at the Right Time, in 1990.

The AIC is a professional organization dedicated to fostering the advancement of the chemical profession in the United States. Previous AIC Gold Medalists include Alfred Bader, Arnold O. Beckman, Paul Berg, Elizabeth Blackburn, Herbert C. Brown, F. Albert Cotton, Carl Djerassi, Walter Gilbert, Harry B. Gray, Ralph F. Hirschmann, Roald Hoffmann, Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Glenn T. Seaborg, Oliver Smithies, Max Tishler, and George M. Whitesides.

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