A reminiscence or two on professor sir derek barton, nobel laureate

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© Imperial College Press






Anthony G. M. Barrett

Department of Chemistry,

Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine,

London SW7 2AY, UK

I first met Sir Derek Barton in late 1972 in the Department of Chemistry

at Imperial College, when I was summoned from the undergraduate

teaching laboratories in the depths of the building to his office on

Level 7. He was writing at a roll top desk in the corner of the

T-shaped room with a small rather insignificant chalk board in the

opposite corner. I do not remember whether the board was covered

in writing or not. This board would be a significant part of my life,

in due course, but at that time its role to be passed me by. I was

rather anxious but the meeting went well; indeed it was short and

pleasant. Sir Derek asked me which book I had chosen for the Hofmann

Prize which I had won in June that year. He approved my choice of

Survey of Organic Syntheses by Buchler and Pearson and asked to see

my copy of the book. Reassured that I had chosen an appropriate

learned text he inquired as to the price. Satisifed, he wrote and gave

me a personal check with the explanation that as Hofmann Professor

of Chemistry it was his duty to cover my winnings. On February 22

1998, Derek and I sat side by side in business class on a charter flight

from London Gatwick to Male in the Maldives to attend a conference,

Perspectives on the 21st Century-II, on Kureda Island in celebration

of his 80th Birthday (to be). It amazes me that some charter airlines

can equate a single plastic flute of champagne alone with the

designation Business Class; I complained but Derek just chuckled to


© Imperial College Press





 G. M. B


himself. He was, as always, energetically engaged in academic pursuits

and avidly reading. He was disappointed that I chose to sleep since

he had brought a book for me to read as well; it was a night flight.

On a regular basis as I passed from fitful sleep to aching wakefullness,

the book on the history of organic chemistry was thrust in my direction.

Had I the foreseen that Derek’s allocation of time was almost over I

would have accepted the loan with more grace. How could I have

known at that time? “Prof”, the “the old man” and “DHRB” seemed


In 1973, I started a 3rd year undergraduate project with Sir Derek

on nitrone chemistry. This entailed research work overseen by one of

his senior postdoctoral research assistants, Richard Haynes, and a

weekly meeting with Sir Derek to describe my failings and occasional

successes at the bench. A research meeting was a show and tell

session where the coworker stood in front of the small chalk board,

in the corner of Sir Derek’s office. He was seated on the diagonal at

his desk, Jocelyn Thorpe’s former desk, and alternatively writing,

reading, listening and watching in an order that seemed, to me at that

time, somewhat random. He asked probing questions, made suggestions

to overcome problems and showed the importance of mechanistic

analysis. I soon realised that he had a prodigious memory for details

of experiments: the order of the addition of reagents, the range of

solvents examined, the melting points of key compounds, yields and

so on. I also learned that it was not wise to forget any such details.

It was also ill advised to belabour failings in attempts to repeat well

established chemistry. On one occasion I was told that when I grew

up I should be able to do chemistry properly: it was chastisement for

my tardiness in repeating a classic Bamberger preparation. However

this incident notwithstanding, I then found Sir Derek very fair: inspiring

albeit rather daunting.

I was delighted that he accepted me to join his research group

to start work on my Ph.D. degree and I duly arrived in the Hofmann

Laboratory in mid September 1973. I was escorted to my new bench

by the technician, Alf Coleman, met the tea lady, Elsie, and was

introduced to Richard Russell, an Australian postdoctoral charged

with my laboratory welfare. Indeed at that time the Hofmann


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Laboratory was largely Australian. David Widdowson was then one of

Sir Derek’s research lieutenants and I was assigned to his care. Sir

Derek believed in the restorative properties of tea taken twice a day

at 10.30 and 4. He was the proud owner of one of the largest tea cups

I have ever seen. Tea rituals were not intended for idle chat or social

banter but as adjuncts to work at the bench or, in his case, at Thorpe’s

desk. Sir Derek asked me which area of organic chemistry I wanted

to work in; I mentioned alkaloid synthesis. I was charged with the

structural elucidation of the toxisterols; minor over-irradiation products

formed in the synthesis of vitamin D


 from ergosterol. Sir Derek told

me that this was the only remaining problem in the steroid arena

worthy of attention. Richard Russell had already started work on the

project and I joined him in the quest.

On a weekly basis and along with others in the group entrusted

to David Widdowson, I was summoned to Sir Derek’s office. In turn,

we each performed at the chalk board. The ritual was similar to my

prior experiences earlier in the year but the audience was larger and

everyone performed in turn. Some blushed, particularly when they

failed to recall details, some trembled, others seemed confident, even

blasé. Besides probing questions and discussions of mechanisms and

the approaches to be adopted to defeat barriers to progress there were

take home messages for each and every one of us. “Very good,” even

“Excellent” were received with pleasure; “Is that all?” with pain.

Every Christmas Sir Derek organised a party for his whole group

and the inhabitants of the Hofmann Laboratory were joined by those

in the Wiffen Laboratory and other laboratories at Imperial and Chelsea

Colleges. “The Old Man” served the drinks, Norwegian Lager and

Sherry: he was a gracious host. Invariably the group continued the

festivities at a local hostelry when we had consumed the large

quantities of refreshments that Sir Derek provided. One year he gave

out cigars which some of us had considerable difficulty smoking. He

himself at that time was an avid smoker of fine Davidoff Château

Yquen and Portagas cigars and in consequence all his coworkers were

aware of when he was patrolling the laboratories to ask “Do we have

anything new to report?”


© Imperial College Press





 G. M. B


In due course and following medical advice, Sir Derek suddenly

quit smoking and the Hofmann early warning system failed massively.

On one occasion I was performing my imitation of the “Old Man” in

front of an appreciative audience of colleagues in the laboratory. I

became puzzled as the raucous laughter turned to gray silence. This

only encouraged me to redouble my theatrical efforts but to no avail.

One looked ill, there a sad face, another terrified, on my left one

sought to appear disapproving. I was confused. All the time Sir Derek

watched standing just behind me. Needless to say, on turning, my

own complexion changed to ashes. Nothing was said, he smiled ever

so slightly and walked on. It was then I discovered his tolerance and

sense of humor.

Many considered Sir Derek to be a brutal, hard task master,

aloof, demanding and taking pleasure in overwhelming any scientist

he disagreed with. Yet in my own experiences he was kind, considerate,

supportive and generous. He was true a bon-vivant and was a delight

to be with. Yet in the early 70’s I had only a glimpse or two of these

qualities; many more came later. On occasions late in the evening, Sir

Derek would patrol to meet his group in the Hofmann laboratory. He

was always enthusiastic to hear the latest results. Yet more than once

he instructed me to go home. I was married and he told me I had

other responsibilities besides the laboratory.

In 1978, Sir Derek left Imperial College for the CNRS in Gif sur

Yvette in Paris. By that time Steven Ley and myself had been appointed

as lecturers and were his last two lieutenants in London. Both of us

were treated with excellent generosity when Derek visited or when

we were each invited to Paris. On one occasion it was shared smoked

oysters washed down with 1942 Otard Cognac on the occasion of

Charles Rees and Sir Derek meeting to discuss the affairs of Imperial

College as Charles took over the mantle of Hofmann Professor of

Chemistry. On another, a Chinese banquet with 3 bottles of Moutai,

one for me, one for Steve Ley and the other for Sir Derek and the

ladies. “I stopped you dead in your tracks” he commented to me

years later. Sir Derek introduced me to legions of culinary delights:

globe articokes, sashimi, foie gras, oysters, sea bass, Haut Brion,

Bollinger and other pleasures of the table. On one occasion he ventured


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“Earl Grey is a tea for ladies,” he liked more robust flavours. I protested

that I liked Earl Grey. Smiling almost imperceptibly he corrected himself

“Earl Grey is a tea for ladies


and gentlemen of distinction.”

The same slight smile glinted.

Derek’s loneliness was forgotten when he married Judy Cobb in

August of 1993. As well as a new wife, friend and confidant, he

acquired two splendid dogs that he soon doted on. In March 1996,

I visited him in College Station. It was a happy occasion unlike my

previous visit on the occasion of Christianne’s, his beloved second

wife, memorial service. Derek was proud of his new wife, he was

proud of College Station and his association with the State of Texas

and he delighted in his venerated position in Texas A & M University.

Earlier in London, at an excellent dinner party hosted by John Taylor,

Derek challenged me to guess, from a photograph he carried in his

wallet, his new wife’s age. He was not dissuaded from his quest by

my answer that it was impolite to comment on a lady’s age and I was

forced to give an opinion. Both my answer and the truth delighted


In Texas that March he showed me blue bonnets, the State flower,

which were growing in profusion. I sampled various Texan Cabernet

Sauvignon and was taken to see Washington on the Brazos to

understand the former Republic of Texas more accurately. All of these

things I had done before on my several trips to visit College Station.

But on that day everything seemed brighter and better and larger.

Nothing had changed but Derek’s mood. We talked chemistry at

length. Lunch was a simple meal at the local Red Lobster and at the

end of the meal Derek pocketed all the remaining bread rolls. A

waiter was summoned and more bread requested. It arrived, I was

instructed to take it since Derek’s pockets were full. I offered to buy

him any quantity or type of bread he needed in any store in town but

he was not to be dissuaded. We left the restaurant Judy, Derek and

I, two of us with bulging pockets, jackets and pants. Shortly thereafter

I understood. The dogs loved Red Lobster rolls. I was awarded the

honour of feeding them. I held the bread aloft as Derek released the

hounds. They liked the game; I was less sure. He smiled slightly.


© Imperial College Press





 G. M. B


On February 23, 1998 Derek and I arrived in Male in the Maldives

Islands. Steve and Rose Ley were there, Dave and Marie Widdowson

and many other former Barton students and postdoctorals. The

organising committee for the conference escorted Derek by sea plane

to Kureda Island. Others in the party arrived some hours later by

ferry. The conference was modelled on a Gordon Conference with

morning and evening lectures with the afternoons free for less serious

pursuits. Five years earlier we had the first conference in the series

in the Caneel Bay, St. John, USAVI. Derek told me he greatly enjoyed

the occasion but that there was need for more questioning. I had

thought that there was plenty of time for discussions after each lecture.

However, when Sir Derek invited us to an extra afternoon session for

each to give an informal additional presentation, all attended. Scuba,

sailing and other diversions were forgotten. On the wall a small white

board whilst not for chalk reminded many of their first encounters

with “DHRB.” Ted Cohen, Derek’s very first postdoctoral research

associate, was there as were recent graduates from Texas A & M. All

performed, all sought to pay attention to detail, all were familiar with

the need for clear presentation of their results and all were quizzed

at length. Derek, for his part gave an overview of Gif Go-Agg oxidation

and invited a hearty discussion of mechanism. Derek arose at 3 am

each day or at least he did on the day I checked. He was writing a

story book on dogs and also composing poetry. On the journey back

to London he talked enthusiastically about his current research in

Texas, we joked, drank gin and tonic, and he and I were allowed to

join the crew in the cockpit during the flight. He asked my opinions

about heaven; this bothered me but I could not help in illuminating

his thoughts on the matter. That was March 2, 1998, my birthday.

Derek Harold Richard Barton was born on September 8, 1918 and

died on March 16, 1998. I remember him as a mentor and close

friend. Indeed in all the ways that matter “Prof”, “the old man” and

“DHRB” was indeed immortal. We all miss him but cherish his stellar

contributions to science, his sound advice, his absolute loyalty and

his friendship.


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Professor Sir Derek Barton at the “Perspectives on the 21st Century-I” conference,

Caneel Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands, June 1993.

People pictured with Sir Derek (from the left): Dr. B. J. Willis, Prof. L. Gunatilaka,

Dr. D. A. Widdowson, Dr. D. Doller.


© Imperial College Press





 G. M. B


Professor Sir Derek Barton at the “Perspectives on the 21st Century-II” conference,

Kureda Island, Maldives, February 1998.

People pictured (standing from left): Dr. P. A. Procopiou, Dr. A. Brewster, Dr. C.

Meerholz, Dr. D. Crich, Prof. S. Rozen, Prof. S. V. Ley, Prof. Sir Derek Barton, Prof.

A. G. M. Barrett, Prof. D. Ferreira, Dr. C. R. A. Godfrey, Prof. W. Steglich, Dr. R. D.

G. Cooper; (kneeling from left): Prof. T. Shioiri, Prof. M. Silva, Prof. D. L. J. Clive,

Dr. R. S. Topgi, Dr. D. K. Taylor, Prof. I. Ninomiya, Dr. D. H. Hunter, Dr. R. W. Read.

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