April 27, 2012

The Development of the Woodward-Hoffmann Rules: The Role of Collegial Sharing and Conflict Resolution in the Practice of Science

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The Woodward-Hoffmann rules were developed to predict the orientation of molecules in certain reactions between organic compounds. They were developed in a series of papers published by Robert Burns Woodward and Roald Hoffmann at Harvard in 1965. In 1981, two years after Woodward’s death, Hoffmann received a Nobel Prize for the Woodward-Hoffmann Rules.

Ronald Hoffmann, chemistry and chemical biology, has been at Cornell since 1965 and was present for the April 4th lecture on the story behind the development of the rules. Jeffrey I. Seeman, a Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond, gave the talk.  He said that he intends on publishing a series of papers about the controversy surrounding the Woodward-Hoffmann rules. Seeman was at Cornell for a few days going through Hoffmann’s personal archives for the purpose of gaining more information about Hoffmann’s relationship and work with Woodward and the controversy surrounding the Woodward-Hoffmann Rules.

Seeman introduced Robert Burns Woodward as a successful, dominating, somewhat arrogant man. He showed pictures of Woodward and two other scientists (each very successful in their own right) at the beach. While Woodward’s companions were in swimsuits, he remained in his trademark suit and blue tie, holding a cigarette. In one shot he is standing on the backs of his compatriots as they lie belly-down in the shallow waves, all three grinning happily. Woodward was also a master of puzzles, completing the New York Times crossword puzzle every day in ink. Chemistry provided an endless supply of puzzles for Woodward, who won a Nobel Prize in 1965 for his synthesis of complex organic molecules.

On May 5, 1964 Hoffmann, then a Junior Research Fellow at Harvard, wrote in his lab notebook the first notes about collaborating with Woodward in analyzing what Woodward had previously referred to as the “Four Mysterious Reactions.” Some months later, by the time the two had submitted their fourth and fifth collaborative papers on what would become the Woodward-Hoffmann rules, the Journal of the American Chemical Society was commenting on how “revolutionary” their developments were.

In 2004, forty years after Woodward and Hoffmann began what would become a Nobel-worthy project, Dr. Elias James Corey, who had been a professor at Harvard when Hoffmann and Woodward were beginning their work on the rules, was awarded the Priestley Medal, the American Chemical Society’s greatest honor. In his acceptance speech he claimed that on May 4, 1964 (one day before Hoffmann began working with Woodward) he suggested to Woodward an important idea that would become the basis for the Woodward-Hoffmann rules. Corey was never named in any of the papers Woodward and Hoffmann published as having contributed.

While the 2004 speech was the first time Corey publicly claimed to have been cheated, Corey had written Hoffmann in 1981 after the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded about Woodward stealing his ideas without giving due credit. Seeman has copies of the letters exchanged between Hoffmann and Corey regarding Woodward’s alleged plagiarism, excerpts of which he displayed. Hoffmann believed (and still believes) that Woodward came up with the ideas on his own and Corey didn’t contribute anything. Woodward had a habit of giving people puzzles to which he already had the answer, which he may have done to Corey on the evening of May 4th. Seeman pointed out that in the early 1960s many papers were being published that could be seen as precursors to the Woodward-Hoffmann rules, and what Corey pointed out to Woodward he could have picked up from reading a chemistry journal.

Corey never confronted Woodward about the alleged idea theft, and it was at this point in the lecture that Seeman brought up a 2010 study of his own, published in the journal Accountability in Research. Of six hundred chemists surveyed, he found, fifty percent of them felt they should have been credited in a paper where they received no recognition, but very few actually confronted the offending parties about receiving credit where they felt it was due. Seeman suggested that many chemists who don’t confront professors and colleagues on issues of credit refrained out of fear. He then pointed out that Woodward was feared by many of his colleagues, quoting one who knew him as saying, “Woodward knew how to make use of academic power, administratively and psychologically.”

Corey had refused to be interviewed about the subject of the Woodward-Hoffmann Rules for several years, but Seeman concluded his lecture by saying that from his conversations with Corey it seems that Corey truly and vehemently believed that Woodward had stolen his idea, and that everybody has a different opinion on what really happened in May 1964. He said that scientific research is an incredibly competitive field and that stories like that of R. B. Woodward and E.J. Corey challenge scientists “to think about what kind of professionals we want to be.”

Seeman said that he intends on publishing a series of papers detailing the story behind the Woodward-Hoffmann rules in the coming months and possibly releasing them all together as a book.

Original Author: Kathleen Bitter