Henry Taube, recipient of Nobel Prize in chemistry, dead at 89

Henry Taube

Henry Taube

Henry Taube, the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, and recipient of the 1983 Nobel Prize in chemistry, died on Nov. 16 at his home on the Stanford campus. He was 89.

A member of the Stanford faculty since 1962, Taube was "one of the most creative contemporary workers in inorganic chemistry," according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awarded him the Nobel Prize for his insights into how electrons are transferred from one molecule to another during chemical reactions.

"Henry was a scientist's scientist and a dominant figure in the field of inorganic chemistry," said friend and collaborator Jim Collman, professor emeritus of chemistry at Stanford. "I knew him for 40 years. He was an unparalleled personality and really had no counterparts."

Born in Neudorf, Saskatchewan, Canada, on Nov. 30, 1915, Taube attended the University of Saskatchewan, earning a bachelor of science degree in 1935 and a master of science in 1937. He received a doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley in 1940 and was an instructor there from 1940-41. "I became deeply interested in chemistry soon after I came to Berkeley," Taube recalled. "Just the general atmosphere of the college was conducive of this; chemistry was in the air. There was little pretense [among the faculty] and they didn't feel that they had to impress others. At any rate, the fire was lit there quite early in my stay."

He joined the Cornell University faculty in 1941, becoming a naturalized United States citizen in 1942, and then moved in 1946 to the University of Chicago where he remained until 1961. A year later he joined the Stanford faculty as professor of chemistry, a position he held until 1986, when he became professor emeritus. Taube served two stints as chair of Stanford's Department of Chemistry—from 1972-74 and 1978-79—and continued doing experimental work at Stanford until recently.

Taube expressed his love of research in a 1996 interview: "It's a very exciting time in chemistry, particularly with the advances which are being made in understanding the complex molecules involved in the chemistry of life, the application of this knowledge to the art of healing—now becoming the science of healing—it's absolutely incredible. Because of this and other advances, surprises even in traditional areas, I am reluctant to leave the subject."

In addition to his university work, he also was a consultant at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and at Catalytica Associates Inc., in Mountain View, Calif.

Redox reactions

Taube maintained a lifelong interest in oxidation-reduction or "redox" reactions, in which electrons are lost and gained during a chemical reaction. "Redox reactions occur in biological processes, such as respiration, as well as in abiological processes," Collman explained. "Henry developed the details of how these reactions occur, and in the process invented a new chemistry regarding transition metals, such as ruthenium. He was truly the master of redox reactions."

In 1996, Taube recalled that when it came to redox reactions between metal ions, "there was little prior work when I began my own. Many of the basic ideas underlying redox reactions were developed in the study of non-metal chemistry."

In February 2005, the journal Coordination Chemistry Reviews published a special issue in honor of Taube's life and work. The journal included an article by Peter C. Ford, a chemist at the University of California-Santa Barbara who was a postdoctoral fellow in Taube's Stanford lab in the 1960s. Ford noted Taube's groundbreaking research in the field of coordination chemistry, which involves the study of metal complexes ("coordination compounds") that consist of a metal atom surrounded by other molecules or ions.

"He carried out pioneering studies in photochemistry, and was among the earliest to use isotopes in delving into reaction mechanisms," Ford wrote, noting his work on the Creutz-Taube ruthenium ion that bears his name.

More recently, Taube conducted research bridging the interface between traditional coordination chemistry and organometallic chemistry. "There is simply no way to give full justice to the influence his work has had on modern inorganic and bioinorganic chemistry," Ford wrote. "His Nobel citation concludes with the comment, 'There is no question that Henry Taube has been one of the most creative research workers of our age in the field of coordination chemistry throughout its extent.'"

In his 1983 Nobel Prize banquet speech in Stockholm, Taube described science as an intellectual exercise that enriches our culture. "Each new insight into how the atoms in their interactions express themselves in structure and transformations, not only of inanimate matter but particularly also of living matter, provides a thrill," he said.

Honors, awards and fun

Taube belonged to more than a dozen professional societies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters and the American Chemical Society. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he received dozens of other honors, including two Guggenheim fellowships in 1949 and 1955, the National Medal of Science in 1977, the Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry in 1983 and an honorary fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada in 1997.

"Henry Taube has won nearly every major award in chemistry, yet those who worked with him as students or postdoctoral fellows value him not only for his scientific achievements but also as a really genuine person," Ford wrote in Coordination Chemistry Reviews. "Henry had a remarkable style as a research mentor. 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?' 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….[T]he real talent of this man was making chemistry not only challenging and stimulating, but a lot of fun as well."

Ford recalled Taube being "equally at home talking about gardening, opera, politics, mystery novels, baseball and tennis," and that he collected of all types of items, especially recordings of classical music.

"He was not a vain person, and in fact often described himself as just a farm boy from Saskatchewan," Collman said.

"Henry was always a pleasure to work with, and I think his students all loved him dearly," said Stanford chemistry Professor John Brauman, a long-time colleague. "He was quite an extraordinary scientist and a wonderful human being. All of us feel we've suffered a major loss."

Taube is survived by Mary Taube, his wife of 53 years, of Stanford, Calif.; sons Karl Taube of Riverside, Calif., and Heinrich Taube of Chicago; a daughter, Linda Taube of Galway, Ireland; and five grandchildren. His stepdaughter, Marianna Taube, died of cancer in 1998.

The Department of Chemistry is establishing the Taube Memorial Fund to endow a Taube lecture series. For more information, email Aileen Agustin at aileena@stanford.edu or call her at (650) 723-4770.