Derek Barton transformed the landscape of physical chemistry in one fell swoop by
molecular function. This advancement in understanding also transformed the chemical
imagination from representing chemical reactions and structures in two dimensions, instead
forcing chemists to visualize molecules more accurately, in their three-dimensional
configurations. He shared the 1969 Nobel Prize in chemistry with ODD HASSEL, who had
established the geometry of a common steroid.
Derek Harold Richard Barton was born on September 8, 1918, in Gravesend, Kent, England.
lumberyard owner who died when Barton was 17. After helping his mother, Maude Lukes,
run the family business for two years, Barton entered Gillingham Technical College. He
remained there only a year before transferring to Imperial College of the University of
London, where he graduated with first-class honors in 1940. He conducted his doctoral
research on the synthesis of vinyl chloride (the black plastic used to make phonographic
records) under Ian Heilbron and E. R. H. Jones to earn his Ph.D. in 1942.
During World War II, Barton remained at Imperial to conduct military intelligence research
to work on synthesizing organic phosphorous compounds. However, he only lasted a year in
the industry before returning to academia; he preferred a position as a junior lecturer in
inorganic chemistry at Imperial to a corporate job. Four years later, in 1949, a position in
organic chemistry, his actual area of specialization, opened up at Imperial College.
During those four years, Barton commenced the research that led to his breakthrough
chemical structures and their molecular properties. Word of Odd Hassel’s work deciphering
the geometry of cyclohexane (a foundational molecule for triterpenoids and steroids) reached
him, and he extended this work to other, more complex molecules. In 1949, the prominent
steroid chemist Louis Fieser invited Barton to Harvard University as a visiting lecturer to fill
the position vacated by ROBERT BURNS WOODWARD, who was taking a one-year
While attending a lecture by Fieser on some unsolved steroid mysteries, an epiphany visited
characteristics. He immediately expounded his theory, citing experimental confirmation, in a
four-page paper entitled “The Conformation of the Steroid Nucleus.” He published this piece
in the Swiss journal Experientia, a relatively obscure publication that soared in circulation
after word got out about the significance of Barton’s paper. Not only did he establish the field
of con-formational analysis by asserting a correlation between molecular structure and
molecular functions, but also he transformed the chemical view from a flat plane into a three-
dimensional space of complex configurations.
Upon his return to England in 1950, Barton was promoted to a readership at Birkbeck College
In 1955, the University of Glasgow named him its Regius Professor, but two years later
Barton returned to London to take up a full professorship at Imperial College, where he
remained for the next two decades. During the 1950s, he worked with free-radical chemistry
the transformation of opium poppies into morphine. He also generated photochemical
reactions by casting ultraviolet light on samples to rupture chemical bonds into free radicals
that he then manipulated to synthesize compounds. In 1958, he employed what became
known as the “Barton reaction” to synthesize the steroid aldosterone, and in one experiment
increased the world’s supply of this electrolytic hormone from a matter of milligrams to more
than 60 grams.
In 1969, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honored Barton and Hassel with the Nobel
geometry of steroids, and Barton’s “gap jumping” theory correlating this chemical geometry
to corresponding chemical characteristics, thereby demonstrating how the two seemingly
disparate areas of form and function actually work hand-in-hand. Three years later, Queen
Elizabeth II knighted Barton, though he insisted on leaving the title of “Sir Derek” behind
when he traveled outside of England.
In 1978, Barton relocated to Gif-sur-Yvette, France, as the director of research for the Centre
Naturelles (ICSN.) This move thrilled his second wife, Professor Christiane Cognet, who was
French (his earlier marriage to Jeanne Kate Wilkins, which yielded one son, William Godfrey
Luke Barton, ended in divorce.) Barton continued to invent new reactions, naming the
components “Gif” reagents after the site of his research.
In 1986, Texas A&M University named Barton a Distinguished Professor, a post he held for
Chemical Society granted him its 1989 Creative Work in Synthetic Chemistry Award and its
1995 Priestley Award. His second wife died in 1994, and his third wife, Judy Cobb, survived
him when he passed away on March 16, 1998, in College Station, Texas.
Obituary: Professor Sir Derek H. R. Barton (1918-1998)
Molecular Diversity Preservation International (MDPI), Saengergasse 25, CH-4054 Basel,
Tel. +41 79 322 3379, Fax +41 61 302 8918, E-mail: Lin@mdpi.org
Received: 19 March 1998 / Published: 20 March 1998
Professor Sir Derek H. R. Barton
With great sadness I just learned that Professor Sir Derek H. R. Barton died in the evening of
Professor Barton had been very supportive to our electronic journal, Molecules
also immediately accepted my invitation to be a member of the International Scientific
Advisory Committee of the related conference ECSOC-1 as well as ECSOC-2(The 2nd
International Electronic Conference on Synthetic Organic Chemistry, http://www.mdpi.org/
ecsoc-2.htm). He served on the editorial boards of numerous other chemistry journals also. He
was the chairman and one of the founding editors of the famous Tetrahedron publications.
Even in recent years, at high age, Professor Barton had been very active in the chemistry
He had been invited to many symposia, chemistry seminars, colloquium series, and
Nobel Prize" twice, the first time was at the University of Louisville, USA in 1988, and it was
always very stimulating and full of fascinating details.
He had been active in scientific research even in very recent years as we can find his frequent
application in chemistry. We exchanged several e-mails recently. It is a shock that he
suddenly passed away.
Derek Harold Richard Barton  was born on 8 September 1918, son of William Thomas and
(Organic Chemistry) in 1942, from University of London, Imperial College. After two years
in military intelligence and one in industry, he returned to Imperial College to teach inorganic
and physical chemistry. He then began an academic odyssey with stops at Harvard, Birkbeck
College, and Glasgow.
In 1950, in a brief paper in Experienta entitled "The Conformation of the Steroid Nucleus",
could be assigned a preferred conformation based upon results accumulated by chemical
analysis. He returned to Imperial College as professor of organic chemistry in 1957.
In 1969 he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on conformational analysis.
Professor Barton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1972 but, by his choice, was known
as Sir Derek only in England.
In 1978 he became the Director of the Natural Products Institute at Gif-sur-Yvette in France,
years until his death.
Besides the Nobel Prize, Professor Barton won many honours. More recently, he won ACS
was chosen as one of several most influential chemists in the past 75 years of chemical
research, by Chemical & Engineering News .
Professor Barton has earned his place in chemical tradition the old-fashioned way, with hard
associated with at least five organic reactions :
Barton nitrite photolysis - the long range functionalization of alcohols via nitriles leading to
Barton deamination - free radical deamination of primary amines via isocyanides;
Barton decarboxylation - decarboxylation of a mixed anhydride (thiohydroxamic-carboxylic)
and interception of the radicals as a sulfide, selenide or bromo derivative;
Barton-Kellogg olefination - olefin synthesis from hydrazones and thioketones via 1,3,4-
Barton-McCombie deoxygenation - of secondary alcohols to hydrocarbons via xanthates;
His recent research interests were the invention of new chemical reactions, the
functionalization of unactivated molecules, and the partial synthesis of natural products .
His most recent interests can be found at his Website .
Professor Barton was first married to Jeanne Kate Wilkins but this marriage was later
son, W. G. L. Barton, by his first marriage. Professor Barton is survived by his third wife,
Judy Cobb Barton; a son, William, who lives in England, and three grand children .
Professor Barton was not only a great scientist, he was also a very kind man, to be
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dr. Matthew F. Schlecht (DuPont) for his
Chemistry, Texas A&M University) for allowing me to use Professor Barton's photo and
section, 19 March 1998.
References and Notes:
1. The website of Barton group at Department of Chemistry, Texas A&M University:
http://www.chem.tamu.edu/brochure/new/faculty/barton/barton.html where the description of
his research interests is:
"Although organic synthesis has advanced greatly in the last few decades and is nowadays a
There is, therefore, a constant need for new reactions that are more selective and give high
yields of single products. Our laboratory is concerned with the invention of such reactions.
A family of high yielding radical reactions has been introduced. These are based on the
frequently have given the nearly quantitative yields required. A more recent development has
associated the thiocarbonyl group with the relatively weak nitrogen-oxygen bond to provide
an efficient system for the conversion of the carboxyl group into a radical. In this way, many
synthetic operations can be carried out in high yields, which were not possible before.
Applications in peptide chemistry, in steroids, in nucleosides and in other areas of natural
products chemistry have been made.
A second interest of the laboratory is in the selective substitution of saturated hydrocarbons.
interesting new approach has been invented for converting saturated hydrocarbons to ketones
smoothly at room temperature. For a 25 percent conversion, the reaction is nearly
quantitative. The selectivity is unusual as secondary positions are attacked more rapidly than
tertiary centres. In steroid chemistry, a one-step synthesis of progesterone from cholestenone
has been achieved.
Recent advances have enabled the conversion of saturated hydrocarbons into a number of
2. For the autobiography of his early part of life, visit
3. See the 75th Anniversary issue, Chemical & Engineering News, 12 January 1998. Website:
4. This summary was kindly provided by Matthew F. Schlecht, DuPont Agricultural Products,
5. The New York Times Obituaries section, 19 March 1998. The URL is
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