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Henry Taube, 89; Chemist Won Nobel Prize in 1983 for His Research on Electron Transfers

November 18, 2005|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Henry Taube, the self-proclaimed "farm boy from Saskatchewan" who won the 1983 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his groundbreaking studies of how electrons are transferred among molecules during chemical reactions, died Wednesday at his home on the Stanford University campus, the university announced. He was 89.

Although his research focused primarily on reactions among metal ions and had little immediate practical benefit, his studies provided crucial insight into the mechanism of respiration, the process by which the body uses oxygen in the air to power cells.

"Henry was a scientist's scientist and a dominant figure in the field of inorganic chemistry," said chemist Jim Collman, a professor emeritus at Stanford in Palo Alto.

The Nobel award citation noted 18 specific instances in which Taube had "been first with major discoveries in the entire field of chemistry," calling him "one of the most creative research workers of our age."

The movement of electrons between atoms plays a key role in all chemical reactions, such as the burning or oxidation of organic molecules, in which electrons are stripped away from an atom, and the reduction of molecules, in which electrons are added.

"Electron transfers are the guts of chemistry," said Caltech chemist John Bercaw, and Taube was among the first to show how those transfers take place.

"Henry developed the details of how these reactions occur, and in the process invented a new chemistry regarding transition metals, such as ruthenium," Collman said.

Many of those metals subsequently become used as industrial catalysts to carry out reactions previously impossible under practical conditions.

Among other things, Taube showed for the first time that electrons could not simply jump from one molecule to another, but had to be transferred over a temporary bridge connecting the two reaction centers.

The exchange of electrons could occur over relatively long distances, moreover, if a sufficiently long bridge was available.

Taube was once asked to describe his research in simple terms. He replied that he had tried to do that once and ended up with a one-year lecture course.

Henry Taube was born on a farm in Neudorf, in southeast Saskatchewan, Canada, on Nov. 30, 1915, and attended a one-room elementary school. He might have become a farmer after graduation from high school, but a teacher, Paul Liefield, arranged for him to take some classes at Luther College, where he worked in a laboratory for room, board and tuition.

Taube donated $100,000 to Luther College last year in Liefield's honor.

He completed his undergraduate and master's degrees at the University of Saskatchewan, then received a doctorate in chemistry from UC Berkeley. With no jobs available in California, he joined the faculty at Cornell in New York and then the University of Chicago before joining the Stanford faculty in 1962. He spent the rest of his career there, finally stopping research in 2001 to spend his time "enjoying life."

He became a U.S. citizen in 1942.

Taube had an unusual style with his graduate students, said chemist Peter C. Ford of UC Santa Barbara, a former student.

"He would make his morning and afternoon rounds through the laboratory (often with a beer in hand) to chat with students, frequently beginning a conversation with the question, 'What's new?' " Ford wrote in a special issue of the journal Coordination Chemistry.

"Often, an intellectual discussion would be accompanied by a wager on a particular result, a bottle of wine being a common currency. His students did not work for Henry, they worked with him."

Taube is survived by his wife of 53 years, Mary; two sons, Karl of Riverside and Heinrich of Chicago; a daughter, Linda, of Galway, Ireland; and five grandchildren.

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