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Published: Kem. Ind. 56 (3) (2007) 91–94
Paper reference number: KUI-33/2006
Paper type: Conference paper
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Vladimir Prelog and Organic Chemistry in the Past Century

D. Sunko+


Organic chemistry in the past century has undergone several profound changes and Vlado Prelog, as the great organic chemist of our time, was actively involved in these changes. During the first half of the 20th century, synthesis of new organic compounds and the investigation of natural compounds were in the centre of interest of contemporary organic chemists. New methods enabled the preparation of new compounds such as numerous drugs and dyes, thus eliminating in some cases the tedious isolation from natural sources. The German chemical industry rapidly expanded and some small enterprises specialized in the preparation of tailored compounds for use in academic research. Until the first half of the last century, organic chemistry was based on empirical knowledge and meticulous and hard work in the laboratory, and it was practically separated from other branches of chemistry. In Prag, Prelog studied chemistry under the guidance of Emil Votoček, and his few years older mentor and friend Rudolf Lukeš. He practiced preparative organic chemistry in a small commercial outfit of G. J. Driza, who become his first doctoral student. He witnessed the structure of adamantane intuitively suggested by Lukeš, which by its highly symmetrical structure, fascinated Prelog and raised his interest in stereochemistry and the possible synthesis of adamantane. This remained a challenge for him in the years to come, to be solved in 1941 by his student and successor Rativoj Seiwerth at the very end of his stay as professor of organic chemistry at the University of Zagreb. Establishing collaboration with “Kaštel”, the leading pharmaceutical factory in Zagreb, had secured him the financial support needed for his research in Zagreb. From the stereochemistry of adamantane to the formulation of the CIP classification of chirality and the awarding of the Nobel Prize jointly with John Cornforth in 1975, Prelog’s life was devoted to the study of the structure and stereochemistry of many biologically active organic compounds. A fascinating teacher and charismatic person, his career was associated with the Ež which became the mecca of organic chemistry in the past century. Following the tradition of Ružička, whose successor as chair of organic chemistry at Ež he became in 1957, Prelog recognized the importance of the emerging new branch of organic chemistry practiced in the U.S. which centered on reaction mechanisms, and thus bridged the gap between traditional and modern organic chemistry. He later became increasingly interested in bioorganic chemistry, but never lost contact with chemistry and his colleagues in Zagreb. After his retirement, he invited and provided support to younger chemists from “Pliva” who temporarily joined his group in Zürich. Vladimir Prelog, who died in 1998, entered the hall of fame as one of the greatest organic chemists of the 20th century.

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organic chemistry, 20th century, profound changes