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Gene van Tamelen, noted Stanford chemist and fan of architecture, dead at 84

The former chair of the Stanford chemistry department was known for groundbreaking research, as well as his love of cars and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Eugene E. van Tamelen

Professor Eugene E. van Tamelen loved to travel and continued to do so in retirement.

Internationally known organic chemist Eugene E. van Tamelen, a Stanford professor emeritus, died Dec. 12 at age 84 of cancer.

Colleagues described him as one of the most broadly creative chemists of his time. Best known for the biologically inspired syntheses of complex natural substances, van Tamelen made seminal contributions that bridged chemical disciplines, connecting organic chemistry with inorganic, physical and biological chemistry.

Named one of the 20th century's best scientists by England's International Biographical Centre, he was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the founding and longtime editor of the journal Bioorganic Chemistry.

Van Tamelen was born in 1925 in Zeeland, a small western Michigan town in Dutch America's heartland. He said he thought he inherited his gift for spatial thinking, as well as a lifelong love of the applied arts, from his woodworker forebears. He wanted to design automobiles when he enrolled at Hope College in nearby Holland, Mich. But when he took organic chemistry and experienced three-dimensional space at the molecular level, he found his career.

One of van Tamelen's proudest accomplishments was being the first Hope College student to publish original research in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The journal was the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society, and "The Malonic Ester Reaction with 1-Halo-nitroparaffins" was the first of nearly 100 JACS papers he authored.

Moved to Stanford in 1962

Van Tamelen graduated from Hope College in 1947, received a doctorate from Harvard University in 1950 and joined the University of Wisconsin's chemistry faculty that year. He quickly rose to full professor and was Wisconsin's Homer Adkins Professor of Chemistry at the time of his move to Stanford University in 1962. He chaired Stanford's Chemistry Department for several terms.

He published more than 200 papers in leading scientific journals, and his numerous honors included two honorary doctorates and some of the most coveted American Chemical Society awards: the Award in Pure Chemistry (1961), the Leo Hendrik Baekeland Award (1975) and the Award for Synthetic Organic Chemistry (1970). At Wisconsin and Stanford he supervised the research of more than 200 doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom followed him into distinguished academic careers. "Gene" to his friends, his students and chemists around the world referred to him as "vT."

Van Tamelen lectured all over the globe and loved to travel, so he especially appreciated those awards that took him abroad. He won the Haight Traveling Research Fellowship and worked with Sir Alexander Todd at the University of Cambridge in 1957, the year Todd received the Nobel Prize. Van Tamelen explored his Dutch heritage in 1967 on a royal appointment, from the Netherlands' Queen Juliana, as University of Groningen Professor Extraordinarius.

Van Tamelen's virtuoso syntheses of complex naturally occurring molecules began at Harvard under the guidance of Gilbert Stork.

"He was most unusual," Stork wrote, "having already co-authored several papers as an undergraduate. He was fascinated by natural products, particularly the pigments of tulips, a specific enthusiasm that was quite understandable given his family name and where he grew up.

"Gene was a major contributor to our total synthesis of cantharidin, the rather notorious Spanish Fly (published 1951), sometimes considered the first stereorational synthesis of a natural product. Gene's own academic career was marked by numerous signal achievements, ranging impressively from history-making total syntheses, both of natural products, such as the first ones of the hallucinogenic alkaloid yohimbine and the antimitotic colchicine, or of 'unnatural' ones, such as the first synthesis of the theoretically important 'Dewar benzene,' a highly strained isomer of the common solvent benzene that many chemists considered impossible to make."

Distinctive style

His style was distinctive: He liked being different and being first, and the problems he worked on had to be big ones. He was an intuitive thinker and a quick study who could "graze" the chemistry library's disparate journals and come up with the novel connections that propelled his cross-disciplinary chemical investigations.

Chemistry Professor Emeritus John Brauman remembers van Tamelen as "an exceptional intellect, with an extraordinary imagination. He was constantly inventing both new reactions and new approaches to interesting molecules. At the same time, he gave his students a great deal of freedom in their work so they were able to develop scientifically to their maximum potential."

K. Barry Sharpless, professor at the Scripps Research Institute and a 2001 Nobel laureate, recalls being one of those early members of the van Tamelen group at Stanford. "We were so proud to be his students, to be in a lab where five or six different, exciting problems were simultaneously under investigation."

Van Tamelen was in demand all over the world, and his students often had weeks of results to present when he returned from a trip. "I was always amazed," Sharpless said, "because vT could take in so much information and then just nail what mattered faster and better than anyone I've ever known. Sometime he didn't see enough that mattered, and would just ask, 'Why?'"

Sharpless credits van Tamelen with teaching him to always try to see with new eyes. "Sharpless!" he'd say, "The only rule is 'There are no rules!'"

When he was a Harvard graduate student, van Tamelen made summer visits to Hope College to complete work on research projects. During a return visit in 1949, van Tamelen met a young woman in a soda shop who suggested he meet her sister Mary, because Mary was as smart as he was. He did meet Mary Houtman, Hope '52, and married her in 1958.

Ties to Hope College

The van Tamelen-Hope College symbiosis that started in the chemistry lab still flourishes today: Two of the school's top awards are the Gene van Tamelen Prize for Creativity in the Sciences and the Mary van Tamelen Prize for Creativity in the Arts; van Tamelen Plaza, located between Hope College's admissions building and conference center, was dedicated in 1997.

When van Tamelen moved to Madison in 1950, the same proclivity for thinking in 3-D that contributed to his passion for chemistry ignited a passion for what became his lifelong avocation. Wisconsin is Frank Lloyd Wright country; Mary van Tamelen recalls her husband's excitement upon discovering the pleasures of architecture after first seeing Wright-designed houses.

Wright was almost 90 when he came across prefabricated homes manufactured by Erdman Prefabs. Wright offered to produce some designs for Erdman, which he did in 1956. Frank Lloyd Wright prefab design No. 1 was built by Erdman that year, and the van Tamelens purchased it.

They moved to Stanford in 1962. Ever adventurous and ever confident, Gene van Tamelen tried his own hand at architecture. First he designed a vacation home in Pajaro Dunes, south of Stanford on the coast near Watsonville. Next he designed and built an open-air house on the tropical island of St. Lucia, where friends and family spent vacations.

The boy from the Motor State who wanted to design cars that made you say "Wow!" became a man who owned them. He drove an Excalibur, then a Rolls, and enjoyed the fellowship of the Rolls Royce Owners Club.

In retirement he kept traveling, but to exciting destinations, not just the world's chemistry departments. He also enjoyed just sitting and thinking – something he thought was missing from most people’s lives. He was deeply interested in cosmology, and "contemplating nature" was probably his favorite activity of all.

Contemplation, a life-size figural bronze sculpture, was donated to Hope College and installed in van Tamelen Plaza in 2000. The work depicts a young woman, seated on a bench with a book in her lap, engaged in reflection. The artist and donor is Billie Houtman Clark, who as a young woman encouraged Gene van Tamelen to meet her sister Mary.

He is survived by his wife, Mary, a former mayor of Los Altos Hills, and their three children: Jane van Tamelen of Venice, Calif., the mother of Kristin and Alex Luke; Carey Haughy of Columbia, Calif., the mother of Holly; and Peter van Tamelen of Corvallis, Ore., the father of Neal and Luke.

A memorial service is being planned for spring.