A new display honoring the University of
Delaware’s two Nobel laureates is the first thing students and visitors
now see as they enter the lobby of Brown Laboratory.
But it’s the classroom behind the display, and the chemistry lab down
the hall, where student Daniel Nathans and faculty member Richard Heck
traveled along their paths leading to the highest accolade in science.
“This is a fantastic display,” Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said at the
dedication ceremony on April 14, calling the public recognition of the
two laureates an inspiration to students throughout the state. “But
what’s more important is what goes on in these halls and these
Heck, who is Willis F. Harrington Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, joined the UD faculty in 1971, teaching undergraduate and graduate students and conducting research.
In 2010, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of a
new palladium-catalyzed reaction in organic chemistry now known as the
Heck Reaction — a process that changed the way molecules are made and is
credited with revolutionizing the production of such materials as pharmaceutical drugs.
Nathans, who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at UD in 1950,
got his first laboratory experience participating in undergraduate
research at the University. Known as “the father of modern
biotechnology” for his work with restriction enzymes, widely used today
to analyze and clone genes, he went on to earn the Nobel Prize in
Physiology or Medicine in 1978 and the National Medal of Science in
Both men were driven by a dedication to scientific research, said
Charles Riordan, UD’s deputy provost for research and scholarship and a
chemistry and biochemistry department faculty member, at the dedication
“They didn’t set out to change the world, and yet they did,” he said.
Riordan also spoke about the “inextricable link” between research and
student learning at the University. Students are able “not only to
learn about discoveries [being made by UD researchers] but to
participate in those discoveries,” he said.
That type of teaching and learning has been a hallmark of the
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said Murray Johnston,
chairperson of the department. He noted that chemistry “has been an
integral part of the University of Delaware for 200 years” and that
Brown Lab, built in 1937, is where both Nobel laureates worked during
their time at UD.
Heck came to the University in 1971 after establishing a productive
research program at Hercules Chemical Co. He taught and continued his
research at UD until retiring in 1989.
His Nobel Prize-winning research focused on palladium, a
“transitional metal” located in the central part of the periodic table
of elements. Heck discovered how to use palladium to allow a reaction
between two carbon-containing molecules that previously could not have
“The Heck Reaction changed the way molecules are made and changed what molecules can
be made,” said Mary Watson, assistant professor of chemistry and
biochemistry, during a talk in 2010 explaining the significance of
Heck’s work. “There are molecules we couldn't have made without this
It is estimated that one-fourth of all modern pharmaceutical drugs are produced using reactions based on Heck’s discovery.
Now living in the Philippines, Heck was unable to attend the
dedication of the Brown Lab display. He was on campus in May 2011,
however, when UD marked “Richard Heck Day” with a scholarly symposium
honoring him. More than 500 scholars from 20 states and four countries
registered for the event, which featured presentations by chemistry
luminaries from across the United States and Canada, among them Heck’s
co-laureate Ei-ichi Negishi from Purdue University, who delivered the
“I didn’t try for it, but it just happened,” Heck said at the time
about the highest honor in science. “I don’t think you work for a Nobel
Nathans, a Wilmington native, graduated from UD with a bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude with distinction in chemistry, in 1950.
He went on to graduate from Washington University Medical School and
to pursue his interest in biochemical research at the National
Institutes of Health and Rockefeller University.
In 1962, Nathans joined the Johns Hopkins University faculty, where
he conducted independent research and became the first to demonstrate
the use of selective DNA cutting restriction enzymes for the
characterization of genomes. Such restriction enzymes — sometimes
described as a kind of “chemical scissors” that can cut genes into
fragments — are now widely used to analyze and clone genes.
Nathans’ discoveries ushered in the field of molecular genetics and laid the groundwork for the mapping of the human genome.
He was awarded an honorary degree at UD’s 1979 Commencement, was
inducted into the University’s Alumni Wall of Fame in 1985 and returned
to campus again in 1993 to deliver remarks at the dedication of the
Lammot du Pont Laboratory.
“I think it’s important to recognize the remarkable advances in
science and technology that flow from university science,” Nathans said
on that occasion, according to news reports of his talk. “We can
confidently predict that the applications of discoveries in basic
chemistry will continue to have enormous impact on the economic health
of our country and on the well-being of each of us and our children.”
Nathans remained at Johns Hopkins until his death in 1999.