Honoring the Father of Analytical Chemistry

Professor Izaak M. Kolthoff (1894–1993),

Professor Izaak M. Kolthoff (1894–1993)

I am Quang H. Luu Nguyen, an undergraduate chemistry senior in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. On September 12 and 13, 2014, the University hosted an ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark celebration to recognize the legacy of Professor Izaak M. Kolthoff (1894–1993), who was an active faculty member in the Department of Chemistry for 35 years. I was honored to be invited as a contributor to the ACS Reactions blog and share my thoughts abou t this celebration, which included a dedication ceremony and a research symposium.

The Department of Chemistry at my school is located in two buildings—Kolthoff Hall and Smith Hall. I’ve frequently heard about the work of Professor Kolthoff and Professor Lee I. Smith and how their influence shaped not only the chemistry program at my school but also the field of chemistry itself. However, I did not know as many details about Professor Kolthoff’s contributions until this special celebration event.

Despite the early cold in September, the introduction given by the chair of the Departmentof Chemistry, Professor William B. Tolman, ignited in me a sense of school pride. He described Professor Kolthoff as an enthusiastic, passionate chemist and teacher. Professor Kolthoff was a pioneer in, and is considered by many to be the father of, modern analytical chemistry. He played an important role in establishing the field as a separate discipline from other areas of chemistry. He led a huge program of research—publishing nearly 1,000 papers—in analytical chemistry, which gradually became a mature field of science. In addition to his papers, he also wrote numerous textbooks and a definitive 30-volume treatise. He advised more than 50 doctorate chemists, some of whom became leading faculty members worldwide. Consequently, more than 1,100 chemists now can trace back their scientific roots to Kolthoff.

Professor William B. Tolman, University of Minnesota

Professor William B. Tolman, University of Minnesota

The talk given by Professor Peter Carr at the memorial on Saturday morning was also exceptional. As a close friend of Kolthoff, Professor Carr shared personal anecdotes about Professor Kolthoff, such as the meetings, lunches, and sports activities they shared. I enjoyed learning about Kolthoff’s interests outside of his professional career, such as his love of tulips—he often reminisced about his home country, The Netherlands—and how he enjoyed playing tennis, riding horses, and watching the TV show Hogan’s Heroes.

Another colorful portion of the event was the research symposium on Saturday. Five guest speakers presented their current research to a room of about 250 people. The speakers were established chemists from some of the best universities in the United States. It was an amazing and rare opportunity to meet several famous chemists at once and learn about their cutting-edge research in tandem. I was especially interested in two presentations: one given by Professor Harry Gray from California Institute of Technology, and another by Professor Judith Klinman from University of California, Berkeley. They were the final two presenters, but they were able to hold the audience’s attention thanks to their interesting research topics and articulate speaking skills.

Professor Klinman discussed the kinetic isotope effect of hydrogen tunneling mediated by heavy atoms in protein in enzymatic reactions. She proposed a new model confirmed by both computational studies and experimental data. Her presentation also included a lot of cartoons to simplify the chemical systems and her experimental designs, which made the technical talk more approachable.

Professor Harry Gray’s presentation about solar energy was very lively due to his humor and enthusiasm. His presentation was mainly focused on the electron transfer between cheap metal cations and how such a reaction could be applied in solar cell effectively. This research is important, as it will ameliorate environmental impacts caused by fossil fuel, which is the main source of energy today. His research group also provides special opportunities for high school students to learn more about science by designing experiments for these students to perform.

After the celebration, I was more proud than ever to be a part of the University of Minnesota Department of Chemistry, because of the notable impacts that Professor Kolthoff and Professor Smith made on the field of chemistry and how they have benefited society by fulfilling the vision of ACS, which is to improve people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry.

Quang H. Luu Nguyen is a chemistry major at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (Class of 2015). He plans on attending graduate school in the United States to pursue his dream of becoming a synthetic organic chemist.

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