Richard Heck, who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for creating a reaction that has been widely hailed for its prolific usefulness in many areas of modern life, such as drug development, electronic display screens and DNA sequencing, died Oct. 10 in the Philippines. He was 84.
Dr. Heck’s death in Manila was reported by the University of Delaware, where he was a professor emeritus.
According to the Reuters news agency, quoting relatives of Dr. Heck’s late wife, who was Filipina, his death followed years of illness. Ailments included diabetes, slight dementia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Reuters said treatment and care had severely depleted his finances.
Following a tradition in organic chemistry, the reaction pioneered by Dr. Heck carries his name, and it is known throughout the world of chemistry as the Heck reaction. In the language of chemistry, it is a palladium-catalyzed carbon cross-coupling reaction.
That title may not do full justice to his discovery of a process that, according to the Nobel Prize organization, “would transform modern organic chemistry.”
The Nobel Prize committee cited the three chemists who shared the 2010 prize after finding “more efficient ways of linking carbon atoms together to build the complex molecules that are improving our everyday lives.” Besides Dr. Heck, the other scientists were Ei-ichi Negishi of Purdue University in Indiana and Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido University in Japan.
Many of the organic molecules that play key roles in the lives of living creatures, or in the creation of new materials, are large and complex. Molecules of such dimensions can be created in laboratories or in chemical plants by joining together smaller ones.
Organic chemistry is to a great extent carbon chemistry, and linking organic molecules means linking their carbon atoms. If the molecules to be linked are different in structure, then coupling them is called cross-coupling.
Coupling of the carbon in one molecule to its counterpart in another can be desirable, but it is also difficult. The carbon atoms to be linked have often formed bonds within their molecules; getting them to form new bonds with each other thus requires some precise maneuvering and intricate chemistry.
In the Heck reaction, the key to inducing the carbons to bond with each other is the use of palladium as a catalyst.
The coupling thus produced is said to be among the most sophisticated tools available to modern chemistry. Creation of new drugs is among the most prominent of its uses. It has been credited with an important rule in developing compounds for treating cancer, AIDS, asthma, migraine headaches and a variety of other ailments.
Another important use is in the production of organic light-emitting diodes for electronic display screens. These have supplanted liquid-crystal displays, which in turn had replaced the old bulky cathode ray tubes.
Coupling dyes to portions of the DNA molecule helped make possible DNA sequencing and the delineation of the human genome.
Palladium-catalyzed reactions took hold relatively slowly in chemical industries, but in this century, interest, as shown through patents and publications, has soared.
In an interview Saturday, Thomas Colacot, a specialist in the area, described palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling as “the reaction of the 21st century.”
It’s “mind-boggling how this chemistry has become so important,” said Colacot, global research and development manager and technical fellow for Johnson Matthey, an international company active in precious metal catalysis.
In a way, Colacot said, the role of the palladium in creating bonds between carbon atoms can be likened to that of a romantic matchmaker, bringing the two parties together in circumstances likely to promote mutual attraction.
As a catalyst, the palladium fosters the linkage of the molecules but does not participate in it, and is thus not consumed.
As Dr. Heck described it, his work proceeded for years with no “eureka moment,” but rather the slow, methodical carrying out of one experiment after another. It “sort of grew slowly and developed into something of value,” he told the University of Delaware. But one thing that kept him going, he said, was that he “enjoyed doing it.”
Richard Fred Heck was born in Springfield, Mass., on Aug. 15, 1931. His father was a department store salesman, and his mother was a homemaker.
When he was in his early teens, his family moved to Los Angeles, and the job of landscaping their barren lot fell to him. That led to an interest in growing orchids, and concern with fertilizers, sprays, and plant nutrients and their chemistry.
Chemistry became his major at the University of California at Los Angeles, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and a doctorate in 1954. After postdoctoral research, he began working at Hercules Powder in Wilmington, Del., which ultimately led to the Heck reaction and a major new sub-field of chemistry.
He left Hercules (now Ashland) in 1971 to go to the University of Delaware in Newark Del., where he continued work in his field of interest. He retired in 1989 after a career in which he published more than 200 scientific papers.
Among the honors he received was the 2005 Wallace Carothers award for outstanding contributions to chemistry. It is given by the Delaware section of the American Chemical Society and named for the man who invented nylon.
Dr. Heck met his wife, Socorro Nardo, in a restaurant while visiting Manila in 1979. According to Reuters, she died two years after he won the Nobel. In retirement, according to the Nobel committee, he returned to the avocation that led him into chemistry in the first place: growing orchids.