It will take decades to find out of the current department is as ‘good’ as I one I entered in 1960. Schleyer’s comment when he heard I’d been accepted — “Now you’re going to mecca !” (he got his PhD there as well). Everyone defines good in their own way, something certainly true in rating MDs (which I think is nearly impossible). However, the Nobel is one measure.
What was so fantastic about the Harvard chemistry department in ’60 – ’62, is that there were 6 people there at the time who would later win the Nobel (5 in chemistry 1 in Biochemistry). This meant that they weren’t siting around, pontificating and resting on their laurels but were in the process of earning them.
Here they are in order of their Nobel’s
1964 Konrad Bloch — in Biochemistry, but he was certainly in evidence in the building, participating in discussions etc. etc. I think he counts as a chemist
1965 Woodward — all would agree that he’s anyone’s definition of a great’ chemist
1976 Lipscomb — a great Kentucky gentleman in the best sense of the word. My girlfriend worked for him, and really liked him
1980 Gilbert — there’s been some sniping lately that the chemistry Nobel hasn’t gone to real chemists, but his work was so incredibly useful to molecular biology (like Mullis) that the Nobel was quite deserved — it was inherently chemical.
1981 – Hoffman — a pure chemist if there ever was one (Hoffmann actually — thanks Ashutosh)
1990 E. J. Corey — remarkable that it took so long. He came to the reunion (looking well) and introduced the speakers in the afternoon, and simply noted with amazement the advances in chemistry he’d seen over the course of his long career.
Parenthetically, I’d say the advances in medicine (particularly in mechanisms of studying the brain) are even more spectacular. Even in 1970 if you’d told me that anyone could get a 2 dimensional slice (in any desired direction) of the brain in a living human being, I’d have said you were smoking something. Presently we can see synapses form and break down in the living animal.
So it will take us until 2142 to find out how ‘good’ the current department is.
I’m too lazy to look at the list of Chemistry Nobelists up to 2011 and see how many other than the 6 above are also from the department. Does anyone out there know? Are there other chemistry departments with a similar collection of future Nobelists there at the same time?
Next up: How bad is it out there with a newly minted Harvard PhD in chemistry?