Purdue’s Wetherill Chemical Laboratory – 80 Years of Advancing Chemistry

On April 26th of 2013, the American Chemical Society designated Purdue’s Wetherill Chemical Laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark, and I was honored to have been selected as an undergraduate emcee for the event.

There I am!

There I am!

And what a nerve-wracking opportunity it was! Many distinguished guests attended the dedication ceremony: Purdue Provost Tim Sands; two former ACS Presidents, Tom Lane and Joe Francisco; the current ACS president, Marinda Li Wu; Nobel Laureate Ei-ichi Negishi; and the Purdue Chemistry Department Head Paul Shepson. Furthermore, I was asked to speak in front of many of my mentors and past professors, who have worked so hard to shape my academic career. It is certainly daunting to be in the presence of so many great people, with their numerous accomplishments.

Left to right: Former ACS President Tom Lane, current ACS president Marinda Li Wu, and Former ACS President Joe Francisco. From: www.chem.purdue.edu/wetherill

Left to right: Former ACS President Tom Lane, current ACS president Marinda Li Wu, and Former ACS President Joe Francisco. From: http://www.chem.purdue.edu/wetherill

Despite my fears of simply being in the presence of some the most influential chemists of the day, I could not help being struck by how real these people were: joking, laughing, and reminiscing on their own past. Some of the faculty and guests have known each other since their own undergraduate days! All the distinguished guests were very welcoming to me. They also cared about the future generation of chemists. For instance, ACS President Marinda Li Wu met with other undergraduate students before the event began, conversing and answering questions. It’s not every day that undergraduate chemistry students are able to meet with the current American Chemical Society President.

With the unveiling of the plaque, I was reminded of the history surrounding Wetherill Laboratory and the influential chemists who made their living there. The building was completed in 1930, but a new addition was finished in 1955 when the building was ultimately dedicated as the R.B. Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry. Here in this building, two Nobel laureates have conducted their research: Herbert C. Brown (1979) and Ei-Ichi Negishi (2010). Advances in the development of tandem mass spectrometry, palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling, hydroboration for organic synthesis, and numerable other developments also had their beginnings at Purdue University in the Wetherill Building.

For example, Dr. Brown’s Nobel Prize was awarded for his work on hydroboration. The great value of the hydroboration reaction stems from the ability to transform the resulting alkyl boranes to a wide range of functional groups. In essence, the hydroboration reaction involves the syn-addition of hydroboranes to alkenes. Furthermore, the hydroboration reaction is characterized by an anti-Markovnikov addition. The addition also takes place preferentially from the less hindered side of the double bond. Below is the hydroboration mechanism of 1-octene in which the boron hydride rapidly adds successively to three molecules of the alkene to form a trialkylborane:

borane reaction

Oxidation ofthe resulting alkylborane with hydrogen peroxide results in the synthesis of alcohols. A generic reaction scheme is shown below.

borane summary

Another significant chemical discovery at Wetherill was the Negishi coupling, first reported in 1977, for the preparation of unsymmetrical biaryls in significant yields. Recently, transition metals have come to play an important role in organic chemistry due to their ability to activate various organic compounds and, through this activation, thereby catalyze the formation of bonds. Negishi’s work has explored the use of palladium-catalyzed cross coupling reactions in which two molecules are assembled on the metal through the formation of metal-carbon bonds. The formation of metal-carbon bonds facilities the formation of new carbon-carbon sigma bonds by bringing the carbon atoms bound to palladium closer together. The reaction is catalyzed by zerovalent palladium and employs an organohalide RX (R = aryl, vinyl, benxyl, or allyl) as the electrophilic coupling partner. An example reaction mechanism is shown below.

negishi coupling

Moreover, Professor R. Graham Cooks, the Henry Bohn Hass Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Purdue University who recently won the 2013 Dreyfus Prize in Chemical Sciences, was involved in the early developments in tandem mass spectrometry at Wetherill. Tandem mass spectrometry has been crucial in the analysis of drug metabolites, proteins, and complex lipids. Tandem mass spectrometry has also played an important role in clinical diagnosis. Today, it is used for newborn screening for treatable metabolic and hematologic diseases.

A review of only three developments with origins here at Purdue University portrays the extent to which the research and teachings at Purdue University have made an impact on the scientific community. The university’s many achievements prove worthy of the American Chemical Society designation of Purdue’s Wetherill Chemical Laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

After the ceremony, guests were invited to a lovely reception. So much good food and so much good company! Being nervous surely works up an appetite. I can only describe this event as one of those moments where you feel truly inspired to accomplish great things. This event was the perfect way to end my college career at Purdue University. Wetherill Laboratory is where my chemistry career began, and seeing it honored by the American Chemical Society is truly outstanding.

“The R.B. Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry at Purdue University has served as a center for chemical education and research in the United States for more than 80 years.”

“The R.B. Wetherill Laboratory of Chemistry at Purdue University has served as a center for chemical education and research in the United States for more than 80 years.”

Leslie Rank is a recent graduate from Purdue University with a Bachelors of Science in Chemistry. In the Fall of 2013, Leslie plans to pursue her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the field of chemical biology.

Want to know more about the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program?  Visit their website.

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