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Richard Baldwin Turner - 1916-1971 

Richard TurnerRichard B. Turner, an internationally recognized organic chemist who spent his life at Rice University, was among those responsible for the preeminence of American organic chemistry in the period following World War II. From 1951 until his untimely death twenty years later, he was intimately identified with the transformation of the Chemistry Department at Rice into a major center for chemistry in the Southwest.

Born in Minneapolis, the son of Jesse Baldwin and Hubert Michael Turner, he moved to New Haven, Connecticut at age two. There the family made its permanent home, the father as professor of electrical engineering at Yale University and the mother as housewife and amateur botanist.

Turner’s early education in the public schools was followed by eight years at Harvard University (A. B., 1938; PhD., 1942 with W. F. Ross and L. F. Fieser). His life-long interest in the synthesis of biologically active molecules was set in those years: first, in his doctoral work on vitamin K-related napthoquinones; later, as a collaborator of E. C. Kendall at the Mayo Clinic on the adrenocortico steroids and of A. C. Cope at M.I.T. on the synthesis of antimalarial drugs, and ultimately independently, as a senior fellow of the American Cancer Society.

His subsequent work in synthesis and structure determination was conducted in collaboration with a host of graduate students and postdoctoral associates who were attracted to Rice from around the world. He elucidated the structure of ouabain, the cardiotonic East African arrow poison, established the structural correlation between ouabagenin and strophanthidin, and determined the structure of cassaic acid. In the field of synthesis, his major accomplishments included cassaic acid, phyllocladene and marasmic acid, the latter not finished at the time of his death.

Only a thoughtful browsing through Turner’s bibliography can provide an adequate picture of the remarkable breadth of his chemical interests. The most striking demonstration of his eclectic approach is to be seen in his extensive work on heats of hydrogenation. At the beginning of his work at Rice, this branch of thermochemistry was generally considered the province of physical chemistry more than of organic chemistry. He brought a unique sense of excitement to it.

Through a keen sense of relative importance of a large number of interesting questions and the imagination to select from these problems those which could be resolved by the hydrogenation technique, he made a succession of striking contributions. His experimental data, acquired for the most part with his own gifted hands, became widely accepted for its enduring reliability and constituted the basis for definitive answers to many questions of theoretical interest in organic chemistry.

Since this period coincided with rapid proliferation of calculations of the thermochemical properties of organic molecules by quantum mechanics and by the methods of force fields, Turner’s data became a major part of the thermochemical reality against which success and failure of theory was measured.

Turner was a gifted and demanding teacher. Whether in the classroom or in scientific meetings, his lectures - presented in a dry style broken occasionally by an astringent wit - were meticulously organized and logically reasoned.

His accomplishments were given national recognition by his election in 1964 to membership in the National Academy of Sciences.

Through his research, teaching and ability to inspire students and stimulate colleagues, Richard B. Turner made lasting, exciting contributions to organic chemistry. He was a force at Rice University that will be long remembered.