CHARLES J. PEDERSEN was an unpretentious man. He was known to all as "Charlie." But "Charlie" was not a man of meager attainment. To the contrary, he was a luminary in the scientific community, as attested to by his selection in 1987 as a recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
He received that award based on his discovery of a novel class of chemical compounds called "crown ether." The Nobel Committee, in announcing the award to Pedersen (and two others, for unrelated work), said this:
"In 1967, Charles J. Pedersen published two works, which have now become classics, describing methods of synthesising cyclic polyethers, which he named crown ethers. Pedersen showed that these compounds have remarkable and unexpected properties and that they can even bind the alkali metal ions of lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium and caesium into complexes in which the lithium ion is the smallest and the caesium ion the largest. He also found that, depending on the structure of the crown ether, potassium could for instance be bound before caesium. Simply expressed, the selectivity is determined by the fact that different crown ehters include 'holes' of different sizes, into which different spherical metal ions fit."
Pedersen was half-Norwegian. He said in a brief autobiography:
"I was born in Pusan, Korea, on October 3, 1904. My father Brede Pedersen, was a Norwegian marine engineer who left home as a young man and shipped out as an engineer on a steam freighter to the Far East. He eventually arrived in Korea and joined the fleet of the Korean customs service, which was administered by the British. Later, he abandoned seafaring and became a mechanical engineer at the Unsan Mines in what is now the northwestern section of present-day North Korea.
"My mother, Takino Yasui, was born in 1874 in Japan."
DuPont, for which Pedersen had been employed for 42 years, in 2001 issued a series of press releases providing retrospective looks at the company, as it was about to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its 1802 founding. One press release recited:
"Late DuPont scientist Charles J. Pedersen is the only winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry never to possess an earned or honorary Ph.D. Several offers to bestow honorary degrees were extended to Charlie, who retired from DuPont in 1969 and died in 1989. However, he declined all of them, believing his achievement was evidence that an individual didn't need a doctorate to do excellent scientific work."
It quoted Pedersen as having said in his autobiography:
"After taking a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at the University of Dayton (Ohio), I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I obtained a master's degree in organic chemistry. I did not remain at MIT to take a Ph.D.; I was still being supported by my father, and I was anxious to begin working."
Below is an article on Pedersen, reprinted with the permission of DuPont.
Early in 1967, a paper from Charles J. Pedersen, a chemist at the DuPont Experimental Station, landed on the desk of the editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The paper was unusual for several reasons, not least of all its sheer volume — when published it ran 20 densely printed pages. It represented more than five years of laboratory work accomplished entirely by Pedersen with the assistance of a single technician, Ted Malinowski. In the paper, Pedersen reported the discovery of a novel class of chemical compounds called macrocyclic polyethers, which he dubbed the "crown"ethers because of their molecular shape.
The journal's distinguished editor, Marshall Gates, wrote to Pedersen saying, "You are quite clearly reporting monumental piece of work which we shall be quite happy to publish." Both Gates and the still — anonymous referee who reviewed the paper pointed out that many researchers would have managed half a dozen articles out of a similar quantity of data.
For Pedersen, who freely admits he disliked writing papers, one was enough. Although he later published some follow — up papers, the original article, "Macrocyclic Polyethers for Complexing Metals" [J. Am. Chem. Soc. 89, 7017 (1967)] has since become known to Pedersen's colleagues simply as "the blockbuster."
It was the capstone of a successful career. Pedersen retired from DuPont with considerable fanfare two years later. After that, things quieted down. "Charlie," as he is called by friends, spent his retirement gardening, fishing, birdwatching and writing poetry.
But other chemists began to build on his discovery and such work began to snowball. In August of 1987, a symposium on crown ethers was held in Japan in Pedersen's honor, and it appeared he was at last getting overdue recognition — at least from scientists in his field.
An then came the phone call from Sweden.
On the morning of October 14, 1987 an undersecretary of the Nobel foundation called to tell Pedersen that he would share the 1987 Nobel Prize for chemistry.
"I was flabergasted," Pedersen said at a press conference later that day.
Anyone who knew Pedersen could appreciate the sincerity of his surprise. Even in his later years, his health impaired by cancer, he had lost none of the gentle, unassuming and sensitive nature that endeared him to friends and colleagues over the years. He was a brilliant chemist with the soul of an artist — a man who admited he would have been as content to paint watercolors as do chemical research. Former chairman Richard E. Heckert called him a "chemist's chemist — a man of unusual curiosity and keen ability to see simple solutions to complex problems, often when others missed them."
Al MacLachlan, DuPont's senior vice president for technology at that time, acknowledged that "the company's entire research community was uplifted by the news that Charlie Pedersen won the Nobel. It represents a vote of confidence in the way we go about doing research. There are several other technical developments underway in the company that could lead to similar recognition in the future, and would be nice if Charlie's prize could some day be looked upon as the first of several.
In hindsight, it is easy to believe that Pedersen was destined to make some phenomenal discovery. He had a penchant for being in the right place at the right time. "When I was working at Jackson Lab, I used to go one day a month to the Experimental Station. Once while I was there, I saw Julian Hill mixing a solution in a test tube. He pulled out the rod from the tube and with it came many strong fibers." It was historically the first example of cold drawing a synthetic fiber, a technique which later became the process for making nylon and "Dacron" polyester fibers.
On another day at Jackson Lab, where Roy Plunkett's laboratory was across the hall from Pedersen's, "I saw Plunkett's technician, Jack Rebok, open a cylinder. On the inside was a white substance along the rim." It was Teflon® fluorocarbon resin.
A few years down the road, in another lab, it would be Pedersen's turn.
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