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SU chemist to receive prestigious award from American Chemical Society

November 02, 2009

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-8085

One of John Baldwin’s most prized trophies is a small, yellowed postcard that is taped to the file cabinet in his office in Syracuse University’s Center for Science and Technology. The postcard was sent by world-renowned chemist William von Eggers Doering, now a professor emeritus at Harvard University.

In barely decipherable, faded ink are the words: “What a beautifully conceived piece of research” and a request for a reprint of a paper Baldwin published in the Journal of Physical Organic Chemistry in 1983. The paper resolved a fundamental problem in a field that had been unsettled for decades.

It’s the kind of research for which Baldwin is noted and that led to his selection as the 2010 recipient of the James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry. The acclaimed award acknowledging his significant achievements in research will be presented in March during the 239th ACS national meeting in San Francisco.

Baldwin is a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Science in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“John is well-known for his study of cyclopropanes, a ring of three carbon atoms that has very unusual properties of chemical bonding,” says SU Graduate School Dean Ben Ware. Ware was chair of the chemistry department when Baldwin was recruited to SU in 1984.

“In addition to his outstanding research and teaching, John has the perspective of a person with national stature who knows how world-class chemists and departments operate,” Ware says. “In his gentle and collegial manner, John continues to be an intellectual leader on campus and around the world. The impact of his career on our chemistry department will continue for decades.”

Past recipients of the James Flack Norris Award include some of the most respected scientists in the field, such as Doering, who received the award in 1989. Baldwin says news of his selection came as a “humbling surprise.”

After earning a B.A. degree at Dartmouth College in 1959, Baldwin began Ph.D. studies in chemistry and physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) under the tutelage of John D. Roberts, the 1979 recipient of the James Flack Norris Award. Baldwin completed his Ph.D. in just three years and, at the tender age of 24, accepted a faculty position at the University of Illinois, Urbana.

In 1967, Baldwin was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to spend six months in Heidelberg, Germany, reading, thinking and reconsidering the generally accepted descriptive accounts of organic chemistry at that time.

“I didn’t write manuscripts and submit research papers to journals while in Germany, which would have been the standard practice,” Baldwin says. “I simply wanted to study, reflect and think about issues at the forefront of current developments in chemistry.”

His time in Germany marked a transition in the direction Baldwin’s research would ultimately take—to expand and strengthen basic understandings of the most fundamental questions in physical organic chemistry from which new theoretical perceptions could be tested and better theoretical models could be built.

“While in Germany, I discovered enticing opportunities to exercise one’s curiosity and technical skills to strive to gain better-grounded judgments of how chemical transformations take place,” Baldwin says.

Few laboratories in the world have undertaken the complex experiments Baldwin has designed and realized over the years. His work has provided scientists with experimental evidence that either confirmed or led to new theoretical models about how “simple” chemical reactions occur. The National Science Foundation has continuously supported Baldwin’s research over the 25 years he has been at SU.

“The NSF funding allowed me to follow my basic research priorities for all of these years,” Baldwin says, “for which I am extremely fortunate and thankful. The significant advances made in the field over the past 25 years have enabled us to think up, and then realize, experiments we couldn’t have dreamed of executing just five years ago.”

In addition to his tenure at the University of Illinois (1962-68), Baldwin spent 16 years at the University of Oregon (1968-84), including five years as dean of the University of Oregon’s College of Arts and Sciences.

His additional honors and awards include a Daniel Webster National Fellowship, the Charles Lathrop Parsons Scholar Fellowship, NSF Pre-doctoral Fellowships, an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship and a Senior U.S. Scientist Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which supported a research leave in 1974-75 in Hamburg and Munich, Germany. He has also held visiting professorships in Stockholm and Göteborg, Sweden, and elsewhere.

Baldwin has served on a number of national boards and scientific advisory committees, including the President’s Science Advisory Committee; the Medicinal Chemistry Study Section of the National Institutes of Health; the National Science Foundation’s Chemistry Division Standing Review Panel; the executive committee of the American Chemical Society Division of Organic Chemistry; and, currently, the Advisory Board of the Petroleum Research Fund of the American Chemical Society.

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