Professor Hans Wijnberg (1922-2011)
In Chemie achter de Dijken
[Chemistry behind the Dikes], a book published on the occasion of the centenary of the first Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Hans Wijnberg is praised for putting the Organic Chemistry department of the University of Groningen on the international map. Spectacular chemical tours de force and unique discoveries characterize the career of one of the most prominent Dutch research chemists of the latter half of the twentieth century. With that typical Wijnberg drive to always strive for innovation and to set high goals – both for himself and his environment – he made a significant contribution to chemistry flourishing as it does at the University of Groningen.
Hans Wijnberg was a striking personality and highly engaged individual who made no secret of his ideas about a high-quality academic environment, which he voiced in his columns in the university newspaper and as member of the University Council during the wave of democratization that hit Dutch universities in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Born in the Netherlands and after graduating from high school in New York, Hans Wijnberg became an assistant researcher at Pfizer pharmaceutical company.During the Second World War, he contributed to Pfizer’s development of batch penicillin production. Later he became an officer in the US Army and helped to liberate Europe. After his return to the USA, he studied chemistry at Cornell University and in 1952 was awarded his PhD at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. After appointments as assistant professor in Grinnel, Iowa and New Orleans, he came to Leiden in 1959 as a Fulbright Fellow.
In 1960 Hans Wijnberg was appointed full professor and head of the Organic Chemistry Laboratory in Groningen, which was then housed at the Bloemsingel.Under his enthusiastic leadership, Organic Chemistry flourished and gained a worldwide reputation. It was also where he began to establish his own scientific reputation, particularly in stereochemistry. Through creative chemical synthesis, for example, he managed to disprove the dogma that a molecule’s mirror image must rotate the polarization plane of incident light. This breakthrough was subsequently incorporated in all organic chemistry textbooks. The first stable bromide ion and 1,2-dioxetane are other discoveries that are inextricably linked with Hans Wijnberg.
One of Wijnberg’s major achievements was that he and his colleagues reorganized the Chemistry department in Groningen along American lines:a virtually flat organization with a strong international orientation and highly innovative and challenging research programmes. Wijnberg had a wide range of scientific interests and was always thinking up new experiments. His pioneering role in asymmetric synthesis and separation of racemic mixtures in mirror-image – extremely important molecules for the development of new pharmaceuticals – is generally recognized. All over the world, Hans Wijnberg is regarded as one of the founders of asymmetric organocatalysis, a field in which he was far ahead of his time.
To his students, Hans Wijnberg was a unique and inspiring teacher.He delighted in encouraging students to explore unknown areas of study. He was particularly pleased when a student came to him with an idea for a new molecule or synthetic method. In his role as mentor he ensured that his students, on their way to becoming independent researchers, came into contact with the top scientists in the field at the earliest opportunity. Many of his students now hold prominent positions in industry or have become professors themselves. The ‘Wijnberg School’ is an important legacy of this eminent scientist.
Hans Wijnberg constantly emphasized the enormous relevance of chemistry to society and was one of the first advocates of fundamental research as the foundation for innovation and of close cooperation with the business community.He used his many contacts in the chemical industry to great advantage during the latter part of his career.
After his retirement in 1987 (at which time he criticized the mandatory retirement age of 65), he started his own company, Syncom.This successful contract research organization soon grew to become a major player in chemical synthesis research. His gift for conducting high-quality chemical research with a eye to its business aspects resulted in him being presented with the Wubbo Ockels Award for innovative enterprise in 1996.
Hans Wijnberg will be remembered as an inspiring, creative and versatile scientist, a striking personality and a unique teacher.
Hans Wijnberg passed away at the age of 88 at home in Midlaren on 25 May 2011.
Author: Prof. Ben Feringa
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