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Distinguished Professor John Eisch, second from left, talks with Ordinarius Professor Udo Brinker of the University of Vienna, left, John Gitua, PhD '95, and 2010 Nobel Prize winner Ei-ichi Negishi, right, at the John Eisch Organometallic Symposium in Old Union Hall.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Distinguished colleagues, Chemistry Department honor Eisch and former students
November 8, 2011Tweet
Two Nobel laureates and a distinguished colleague from Vienna gathered with faculty, staff and students of the Chemistry Department to honor both John Eisch and his many former research students at the culmination of his academic career. Eisch will retire in the summer of 2012, after 55 years of teaching and research, and 29 years as distinguished professor in his 40-year career at Binghamton University.
The occasion for this signal honor was the John Eisch Organometallic Symposium, held Oct. 28-29 on campus, where Eisch was recognized for his overall career at Binghamton and for his contributions to his discipline, his department and the University.
Donald Nieman, dean of Harpur College of Arts and Sciences, launched the symposium by noting Eisch’s “truly remarkable career as a scientist, teacher, mentor and colleague. It’s a tribute that distinguished colleagues and former students from across the country have to come here to participate,” he said.
When Eisch arrived at Binghamton in 1972 as chair of the Department of Chemistry, the department was much smaller than now, with a third fewer faculty, half as many students and two-thirds fewer PhD candidates.
“This event is a great tribute to the department that John has been so instrumental in shaping,” Nieman added. “A symposium, literally a drinking party, is a gathering that the ancient Greeks instituted to combine fellowship with serious discussion of important ideas, with a lot of active reflection and exchange of opinion. What better way to recognize the distinguished academic career of a creative, energetic scientist whose research has earned him a coveted reputation.
“His charge was to strengthen research, increase the quality of the doctoral program and put Binghamton University on the map for chemistry,” said Nieman, who quoted from Eisch’s letter of acceptance in 1972, in which Eisch wrote: “I’m very enthusiastic about working with you to make chemistry at the Binghamton campus as highly regarded as Harpur College is already to many of my colleagues.”
“And John was true to his word,” Nieman said.
Throughout his career, Eisch has received fellowships, visiting appointments and invitations to lecture at approximately 50 universities in many countries. He has also guided the research of over 100 graduate and postdoctoral researchers.
“I really learned a lot from him,” said Xian Shi, PhD ’96, a research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry who flew in from California to be co-honored at the symposium. “He’s very patient, easy to talk to. He really prepared me to work in the pharmaceutical industry.”
Likening Eisch to a computer because of his excellent memory, Shi said he owes much of his success to his mentor. “He knows all the reactions to make any compound. He remembers every detail.”
John Gitua, PhD ‘05, a tenured associate professor of chemistry at Drake University and another honoree, has collaborated with his PhD advisor on further research projects. “It’s an honor to be back here for this,” Gitua said. “As the saying goes ‘once a teacher, always a teacher.’ I would always look to him [Eisch] for advice and when I was invited back to give a presentation, I didn’t think twice about it.”
In addition to Shi and Gitua, four other former students, professors William Kaska and Renuka Manchanayakage, and Leslie Smith and Csaba Kovacs were co-honored, giving presentations as exemplary graduates of Eisch’s research team.
The symposium opened with a presentation on novel methods of organic synthesis of natural products by 2010 Nobel Prize winner Ei-ichi Negishi of Purdue University. Thereafter, Ordinarius Professor Udo Brinker of the University of Vienna delivered the Laudatio, a lecture given on such occasions in which an admiring review is presented of the principal honoree’s scientific achievements during his career. The Laudatio for Eisch —“The Pleasure of Finding things Out” — summarized his discoveries in the chemistry of aluminum, gallium, indium, boron and lithium organometallics and Ziegler olefin polymerization catalysts (production of polyethylene and polypropylene).
Brinker, who joined Binghamton University in 1988, recalled some difficulty in locating Binghamton on maps. “When I interviewed, as a citizen of Germany, I had difficulty locating Binghamton on the state map, but I knew that John was a member of the Chemistry Department of what was then called SUNY Binghamton,” said Brinker. “I thought that if an authority like him was at Binghamton, then it must offer excellent research opportunities and he was the deciding factor in my joining Binghamton University.”
Related by birth to glass artisans in the Eisch family extending as far back as the early 1600s in Bohemia, Eisch may have been predestined to be a chemist. From the age of 10, he had a laboratory in his basement, which grew in complexity the older he became. He told the audience of working with his father and uncle in their garage where they repaired cars and especially, during World War II and thereafter, where they repaired worn tires and old batteries when new products were strictly rationed.
“Vulcanizing new rubber onto old tires by heat was an intriguing but smelly process evolving sulfurous and ammonia vapors. But more fascinating was rebuilding batteries in a dark basement filled with vapors of hot tar, warm lead and sulfuric acid,” Eisch said. “The last chemical chewed away on my clothes, which action only became visible after laundering. My mother became truly alarmed with discovering shredded wash, so thereafter I kept all such clothes at the garage.”
Eisch credits five teachers who really “crystallized my love of chemistry.” The first was his teacher at Cathedral High School in Milwaukee, Sister Mary Fabian. He took his passion for chemistry with him when he majored in organic chemistry at Marquette University, where his favorite chemistry professor was Clifford Haymaker, who had been born blind and then tutored through to a PhD. Offered a doctoral four-year scholarship from the Institute of Paper Chemistry upon graduation, he accepted it readily but decided after only one semester that the degree would lead to paper mill management, not research. Instead, he began doctoral research at Iowa State University with the world-famous Henry Gilman in organometallic chemistry, which involves the bonding of metal atoms to carbon atoms.
In 1956, Eisch completed his doctoral dissertation and was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from Union Carbide to study at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung with Nobel Laureate Karl Ziegler on organometallic and transition-metal chemistry, and with Günther Wilke, his immediate mentor and the leader of the transition metal catalyst group.
Eisch began his academic career in 1957, as an assistant professor of chemistry at St. Louis University. From there he held a similar post at the University of Michigan and then moved to an associate professorship at The Catholic University of America, where he rose to full professor and head of the Department of Chemistry. He joined Binghamton’s faculty as chair of the Department of Chemistry in 1972, and was appointed distinguished professor of chemistry in 1983.
He has over 375 publications, including the books The Chemistry of Organometallic Compounds (Macmillan, 1967) and Organometallic Syntheses, Vol. 2 (Academic Press, 1981), Vol. 3 (Elsevier, 1986) and Vol. 4 (Elsevier, 1988), and has maintained grant support throughout his career from both government and industry, including the Petroleum Research Fund, National Science Foundation, U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the U.S. Army Research Office and some twelve other major industrial sources.
The second day of the Eisch symposium opened with a presentation by 1981 Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann, professor emeritus at Cornell University, who spoke on “All the ways to have a bond.”
“It’s a real pleasure to have this neighbor and colleague with an equal interest in what holds things together and with the added ability to translate that into practice,” Hoffmann said of Eisch.
The symposium concluded with Eisch’s own presentation titled, “Retrospect, Prospect and Gratitude”, in which he stressed his abiding gratitude for the indispensable collaboration of all his talented and diligent coworkers and the overarching support of his department and university in these manifold achievements.
With retrospect of the Eisch family involvement with the alchemy of glass extending back to the early 1600s and his own career in organometallics, the prospect for his future certainly lies in chemistry. What are his future plans? Eisch concluded, “What does a person who has done experiments all of his life do when he can no longer work in a laboratory? I’m basically an organic chemist and believe that even the pre-biotic chemicals essential to life evolved from a pool of simply inorganic chemicals that then united to set the stage for the emergence of life. I’m interested in the processes that would lead to that. That’s the kind of research that makes the rest of us appreciate how improbable it must have been for the emergence of life. But without a lab or talented collaborators, I will have to work that out in my mind. The origin of life is a problem no one will ever really solve completely and it’s best to attack it in retirement. So that’s the kind of chemistry I will do in the years ahead − thought chemistry.”