Harry H. Wasserman

Yale University

December 1, 1920 - December 29, 2013

Election Year: 1987
Scientific Discipline: Chemistry
Membership Type: Member

Considered by colleagues to be a keenly creative chemist, Harry Wasserman was well known for his works in chemical synthesis. But he also had a passion for structure determination and was ever on the lookout for natural products of promising biological activity and seemingly challenging structural motifs. Over his long career at Yale University—he served on its faculty for more than 50 years—Wasserman and his research group developed innovative ways to help bring organic chemistry’s rising powers to bear on the synthesis of pharmaceuticals, particularly antibiotics. He was a pioneer in applying the emerging resources of nuclear magnetic resonance and ultraviolet, infrared, and mass spectroscopy—methods that would provide the capacity to deal with problems of actual bond connectivities in structure determination.

Wasserman, who grew up in and around Boston, MA, was awarded a Cambridge scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he earned a B.S. in chemistry in 1941. He then began graduate studies at Harvard University under the mentorship of the organic chemist Robert Burns Woodward, a future Nobel laureate. Upon completion of his Ph.D. research in 1948 (he received the degree in 1949), Wasserman joined the Yale faculty.

Beyond his own extensive research achievements, Wasserman helped ensure that his fellow chemists received pertinent, accurate, and timely information from all quarters. Serving as American editor of Tetrahedron Letters for 38 years (1960–1998), it was estimated that some 10,000 potential articles passed through his office. Renowned as a “peacemaker” in cases of disagreement between authors and referees, he often found ways to resolve the conflict constructively by suggesting modifications that would satisfy both sides.

Wasserman was also an effective and inspiring classroom teacher. He taught organic chemistry for more than four decades, gaining admiration for making an often-dreaded course clear and enjoyable. In honor of his distinguished record as an educator, the university established the Wasserman Prize for Excellence in the Teaching of Chemistry.

Harry’s students and colleagues remember him as a warm, upbeat, and witty friend and mentor, fascinated by the beauty of structures, natural and technological alike. When he traveled, as he did widely for science, he always took along his brushes and sketchbooks. And as a self-taught clarinetist, he played regularly with a number of jazz combos, including a quartet of Yale chemists performing as “the Gloom Exterminators.”

Photo courtesy of Harold Shapiro

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