Ei-ichi Negishi, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2010 for developing techniques ubiquitous in the manufacture of medicines today, died in Indianapolis on June 6th. He was 85.
His death in a hospital was announced by Purdue University, where Dr. Negishi was a professor for four decades. No reason was given.
The research by Dr. Negishi included chemical reactions that create complex organic compounds – large carbon-based molecules used in medicines, plastics, and many other industrial materials. It can be difficult to attach one carbon atom to another, but Dr. Negishi and other chemists found that metals, especially palladium, could be used as mediators.
In these reactions, two carbon-based molecules initially adhere to the palladium. The palladium then breaks away from them, and the two carbons attach to each other, forming a new, larger molecule. With palladium as a catalyst, organic chemistry reactions can occur at lower temperatures with fewer steps, reducing costs and waste.
“It just enables this tremendous selectivity,” said James M. Tour, professor of chemistry at Rice University in Houston who is a PhD student of Dr. Negishi was. “When you build molecules, you have to be able to work on one part of the molecule without destroying the other part.”
Chemists had discovered the magic of palladium before, and in 1977, Dr. Negishi based on this work by using zinc compounds to facilitate the mixing of carbon atoms on palladium. This made the method applicable to a wider range of reactions.
“None of us can live without organic compounds,” said Dr. Negishi at a press conference on the day the Nobel Prize was announced. “One of our big dream goals is to be able to synthesize any organic compound with high yield and high efficiency.”
As an analogy, he called the creation of elaborate Lego structures. “That’s a pretty good description of what we were trying to do,” he said.
Traditionally, organic chemists have largely limited themselves to molecules that use the 10 or so elements found in organic compounds. Dr. Negishi said he and others “realized that we should make sure of the entire periodic table.”
By expanding to other elements like palladium, the chemists actually increased the number of Lego pieces they could use and that opened up new ways to synthesize the molecules they wanted to make.
Dr. Negishi shared the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Richard F. Heck from the University of Delaware and Akira Suzuki from Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.
Unlike many Nobel Prize winners who say they never expected to receive the highest honor in the world of science, Dr. Negishi, it was “not a big surprise”, received a call on October 6, 2010 from the Royal Swedish Academy of United Sciences, which administers the Nobels.
Dr. Tour said Dr. Negishi did research that he considered noble. “He dreamed about it,” said Dr. Trip. “He talked about the Nobel Prize many times. And what would have to be done to win that? “
To this end, Dr. Negishi be adamant. “It was extremely demanding,” said Dr. Trip. “He had no problem making people cry at a table.”
Dr. Tour said that Dr. Negishi also had a generous side. “When someone went to their office door and knocked, their door was always open,” said Dr. Trip. “And you usually sit a lot longer than you expected because he’s analyzed the entire project you’re working on, not just the question you’re asking.”
Ei-ichi Negishi was born on July 14, 1935 in Changchun, China, then known as Hsinking, the capital of the northeastern part of the country controlled by Japan. His family moved to Tokyo after World War II and then to a rural area outside Tokyo, where his father farmed and his mother looked after the family’s five children.
After graduating from the University of Tokyo with a Bachelor of Engineering degree in 1958, he worked as a research chemist at Iwakuni Research Laboratories in Japan. After his report, he realized he needed more academic education but felt that the graduate school was financially out of reach.
However, his fate changed in 1960 when he received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his PhD in 1963, he joined Herbert C. Brown’s laboratory in Purdue. Dr. Brown was the first Purdue faculty member to receive a Nobel Prize in 2004; Dr. Negishi was the second.
“As for research, he’s my only mentor,” said Dr. Negishi in an interview following the Nobel announcement about Dr. Brown. “I had other professors, but he taught me pretty much everything how to do research.”
Dr. Negishi moved to Syracuse University as an assistant professor in 1972 and returned to Purdue as professor in 1979. He retired in 2019 and has authored more than 400 academic papers.
In 2010, Dr. Negishi, who remained a Japanese citizen, received the cultural order of Emperor Akihito. In 2014 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
The survivors include two daughters, four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. His 58-year-old wife Sumire died in 2018.
“When he got his Nobel Prize, he got nicer,” said Dr. Trip. “He took his wallet out of his pocket and the Nobel Prize medallion protruded from his wallet.”
Dr. Tour said Dr. Negishi would pass the medal around and he wouldn’t mind if someone dropped it. “You could see the thing on one side,” said Dr. Trip. “And he just laughed about it.”