The Story of Charles Pedersen’s Nobel Prize Discovery

DuPont Chemist, Charles Pedersen, Nobel Laureate
DuPont Chemist, Charles Pedersen, Nobel Laureate

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Crown Ether
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The Nobel Prize for Chemistry is one of the world’s most prestigious awards. Since 1901, it has recognized “the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement.” Only 108 of these awards have been granted, and DuPont’s Charles J. Pederson received one of them. Pedersen, recognized for his discovery of crown ethers, received the 1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The Discovery

Early in 1967, a paper from Charles J. Pedersen, a chemist at the DuPont Experimental Station, landed on the desk of the editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The paper was unusual for several reasons, not least of all its sheer volume — when published it ran 20 densely printed pages. It represented more than five years of laboratory work accomplished entirely by Pedersen with the assistance of a single technician, Ted Malinowski. In the paper, Pedersen reported the discovery of a novel class of chemical compounds called macrocyclic polyethers, which he dubbed the “crown” ethers because of their molecular shape.

The journal’s distinguished editor, Marshall Gates, wrote to Pedersen saying, “You are quite clearly reporting a monumental piece of work which we shall be quite happy to publish.” Both Gates and the still-anonymous referee who reviewed the paper pointed out that many researchers would have managed half a dozen articles out of a similar quantity of data.

For Pedersen, who freely admits he disliked writing papers, one was enough. Although he later published some follow-up papers, the original article, “Cyclic Polyethers and Their Complexes with Metal Salts” [J. Am. Chem. Soc. 89, 7017 (1967)] has since become known to Pedersen’s colleagues simply as “the blockbuster.”

A Crowning Achievement

It was the capstone of a successful career. Pedersen retired from DuPont with considerable fanfare two years later. After that, things quieted down. “Charlie,” as friends call him, spent his retirement gardening, fishing, bird watching and writing poetry. But other chemists began to build on his discovery and such work began to snowball. In August of 1987, a symposium on crown ethers was held in Japan in Pedersen’s honor, and it appeared he was at last getting overdue recognition — at least from scientists in his field.

And then came the phone call from Sweden.

On the morning of October 14, 1987, an undersecretary of the Nobel foundation called to tell Pedersen that he would share the 1987 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

“I was flabbergasted,” Pedersen said at a press conference later that day.

Anyone who knew Pedersen could appreciate the sincerity of his surprise. Even in his later years, his health impaired by cancer, he had lost none of the gentle, unassuming and sensitive nature that endeared him to friends and colleagues over the years. He was a brilliant chemist with the soul of an artist — a man who admitted he would have been as content to paint watercolors as do chemical research. Former chairman Richard E. Heckert called him a “chemist’s chemist — a man of unusual curiosity and keen ability to see simple solutions to complex problems, often when others missed them.”

Congratulations to the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winners, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.”