Much has been written about Robert Burns Woodward (1917-1979), one of the world’s leading organic chemists of the twentieth century, from his precocious interest in chemistry to his fearless talent and uncanny intuition as a researcher. His adroit synthesis of complex natural products is legendary: quinine, cholesterol, lysergic acid, strychnine, cortisone, several antibiotics, chlorophyll, vitamin B12, and many other intricate molecules. He received numerous honorary degrees, learned society memberships, and awards, including the 1965 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his outstanding achievements in the art of organic synthesis”. In addition to synthetic organic chemistry, he proposed, in 1952 (with Geoffrey Wilkinson), the “sandwich” structure of ferrocene, a milestone in modern organometallic chemistry, and developed a set of rules to predict and explain the outcome and stereochemistry of pericyclic organic reactions (i.e., the “Woodward-Hoffmann rules”). He authored some 200 publications and trained more than 200 Ph.D. students and postdoctoral research associates, many of who went on to have distinguished careers.
Despite the magnitude of his scientific legacy, Woodward was not philatelically recognized until the year 2015, when postage stamps paying tribute to the eminent chemist were issued in two African nations. The stamp from the Republic of Guinea illustrated in this note is particularly puzzling, since it portrays Woodward next to a gorilla. It is part of a set of four stamp highlighting early pioneers of the fight against malaria, so it is fair to include Woodward for his well-known total synthesis of quinine (1944). A possible solution to the gorillian conundrum may be surmised from a 2010 study reported in Nature, in which an international team of researchers describe how gorillas may have been the original source of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite responsible for the most prevalent and harmful form of malaria infecting humans. Hence, I must conclude that Woodward’s companion on the Guinean stamp is a rather obscure but reasonable choice.
In turn, the stamp from the Republic of Chad, with a more conventional design, features the structure of reserpine, an alkaloid with antipsychotic and antihypertensive properties, whose total synthesis was completed by Woodward in 1956. Interestingly, the stamp includes, underneath the structural diagram of reserpine, the actual reference to the full paper published in Tetrahedron two years later describing in detail (57 pages!) this synthetic breakthrough.
The only two countries that have honored RBW with postage stamps may seem a bit unusual but I must praise the corresponding postal authorities for doing so in an ingenious and meaningful way!
Written by Daniel Rabinovich <email@example.com>.
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