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Dr. Scott Denmark: Recipient of the Prelog Medal

Dr. Scott DenmarkIn 2007, Dr. Scott Denmark traveled to Zürich, Switzerland, to receive an award of special importance, not only for its significance in chemistry, but also for him personally: the Vladimir Prelog Medal, awarded by the Organic Chemistry Laboratory of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH-Zürich). For more than 20 years, the Prelog Medal has stood as a distinguished achievement in the chemical world, recognizing not only excellence in chemistry, but also an individual who has made fundamental contributions to the field of stereochemistry. Heralded as an original and innovative thinker in stereochemistry, Denmark was a clear choice for the award due to his pioneering work in the invention and study of new, stereoselective, synthetic reactions.

The award was meaningful for Denmark, however, not only because of its prestige, but because of the personal connection that he had with the individual for whom the award was named. A graduate of the ETH, Denmark had known Prelog and had many memorable encounters with this legendary chemist. During his graduate years, Denmark spent his Sundays in the ETH Bibliothek, reading not only the current literature, but also the work of the giants of organic chemistry who had laid the foundations of the field. Of particular interest were those scientists, especially Prelog, Ruzicka, Wilstätter, and Kuhn who had spent much of their careers at the ETH. Indeed, in his speech accepting the medal, Denmark identified Prelog as one of his chemical heroes.

Although Prelog made seminal contributions to many areas of chemistry, including the structure and synthesis of alkaloids and antibiotics, it was his work in stereochemistry that was recognized by the Nobel Foundation in 1975. Prelog discovered early on the many stereochemical consequences of organic structures and transformation, and devoted himself to determining, manipulating, and understanding those phenomena. His work lead to the development of the Cahn-Ingold-Prelog system, as well as the creation of "Prelog's Rules," a method for determining the absolute configuration of secondary alcohols.

Stereochemistry suffuses the many different areas of research investigated by Denmark during his 28-year career at Illinois. From his early reports on the Nazarov cyclization—which were termed groundbreaking by his contemporaries—to his more recent work in emphasizing the chemistry of Lewis bases, which has led to the identification of new opportunities for catalysis, Denmark's many discoveries have opened doors in exciting and pioneering new ways. Leading scientists such as Erick Carreira have lauded his recent research in Lewis base catalysis, saying that, "A combination of creativity and mechanistic insight has produced a substantive new addition to the field of asymmetric synthesis... The intellectual departure from the established norm only came about as a consequence of the creativity and innovation that typifies Denmark's research program. The development of this concept required a new class of reagents, i.e. trichlorosilyl enolates, and catalysts, particularly chiral phosphoramides. The success of these transformations constitutes a remarkable tour de force ..."

The long list of awards that Denmark has received pays tribute to the lasting impact that he has left on the world of chemistry. With honors including the Yamada-Koga Prize of the Japan Research Foundation for Optically Active Compounds; the Pedler Medal from the Royal Society of Chemistry; the A.C. Cope Scholar award from the American Chemical Society (ACS); and the ACS Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry, Denmark's recognitions abound. Yet, despite this surfeit of accolades, his enthusiasm and creativity have not diminished. In recent years he has embarked upon new adventures in research, exploring uncharted areas in chemistry and stereochemistry, for example in systematic examination of the characteristics of phase transfer catalysts and the implementation of organosilicon compounds in cross-coupling processes.

Through it all, however, Denmark has maintained a perspective that both pays tribute to and echoes that of Vladimir Prelog. Prelog (a Croation by birth) recognized how fortunate he was to have been given the opportunity to be a professor at the ETH-Zürich. He maintained that it was a privilege to interact with outstanding colleagues and students and he was always grateful for the assistance and guidance he received from his colleagues and co-workers. Most importantly, Prelog generously acknowledged the contributions made by his predecessors, without whom many of his own discoveries would not have been possible.

"If I have seen further than others," Denmark said in his acceptance speech, quoting Isaac Newton, "it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."

To read more on Dr. Denmark, visit his webpage at http://chemistry.illinois.edu/faculty/Scott_Denmark.html

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