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Elias J. Corey

E.J. Corey
Born (1928-07-12) July 12, 1928 (age 86)
Methuen, Massachusetts, USA
Nationality United States
Fields Organic chemistry
Institutions Harvard University
Alma mater Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Doctoral advisor John C. Sheehan
Notable students K. C. Nicolaou,Ryōji Noyori, Hisashi Yamamoto, William L. Jorgensen
Known for Retrosynthetic analysis
Notable awards Franklin Medal (1978)
Wolf Prize in Chemistry (1986)
Japan Prize (1989)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1990)
Priestley Medal (2004)

Elias James "E.J." Corey (born July 12, 1928) is an American organic chemist. In 1990 he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his development of the theory and methodology of organic synthesis", specifically retrosynthetic analysis.[1][2] Regarded by many as one of the greatest living chemists, he has developed numerous synthetic reagents, methodologies, and has advanced the science of organic synthesis considerably.


E.J. Corey was born to Christian Lebanese immigrants in Methuen, Massachusetts, 50 km (31 mi) north of Boston. His mother changed his name to "Elias" to honor his father who died eighteen months after the birth of his son. His widowed mother, brother, two sisters and an aunt and uncle all lived together in a spacious house, struggling through the Great Depression. He attended Catholic elementary school and Lawrence Public High School.

Corey entered MIT in 1945. At MIT, he earned both a bachelor's degree in 1948 and a Ph.D. at age 22 in 1951. Both degrees were in chemistry. Immediately thereafter, he joined the faculty of University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign where he became a Full Professor of Chemistry in 1956 at the age of 27. He was initiated as a member of the Zeta Chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma at the University of Illinois in 1952.[3] In 1959, he moved to Harvard University, where he is currently an emeritus professor of organic chemistry with an active Corey Group research program. He chose to work in organic chemistry because of "its intrinsic beauty and its great relevance to human health".[4] He has been an advisor to Pfizer for more than 50 years.[5]

He and his wife, Claire, were married in 1961. They have three children, David, John, and Susan and two granddaughters, Sara and Kate Corey. Currently, he and his wife, Claire, live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In 1988, he was awarded the National Medal of Science.[6] He was awarded the American Chemical Society's greatest honor, the Priestley Medal, in 2004.

Major contributions


He has developed several new synthetic reagents:

  • PCC (pyridinium chlorochromate), also referred to as the Corey-Suggs reagent, and PDC (pyridinium dichromate): widely used for the oxidation of alcohols to aldehydes.[7]
  • t-Butyldimethylsilyl ether (TBDMS),[8] Triisopropylsilyl ether (TIPS), and Methoxyethoxymethyl (MEM): popular alcohol protecting groups.
  • Boron-based heterocycles for the asymmetric catalysis of the Diels-Alder reaction[9] and reduction of ketones.[10]

In addition, Corey commenced detailed studies on cationic polyolefin cyclizations utilized in enzymatic production of cholesterol from simpler plant terpenes.[11]


Several reactions developed in Corey's lab have become commonplace in modern synthetic organic chemistry. At least 302 methods have been developed in the Corey Group since 1950.[12] Several reactions have been named after him:

Total syntheses

E. J. Corey and his research group have completed many total syntheses. At least 265 molecules have been synthesized in the Corey Group since 1950.[13]

His 1969 total syntheses of several prostaglandins are considered classics.[14][15][16]

Other notable syntheses:


E.J. Corey has more than 1000 publications.[26] In 2002, the American Chemical Society (ACS) recognized him as the "Most Cited Author in Chemistry". In 2007, he received the first ACS Publications Division "Cycle of Excellence High Impact Contributor Award"[27] and was ranked the number one chemist in terms of research impact by the Hirsch Index (h-index).[28]

E.J. Corey's books include:

  • E.J. Corey and Laszlo Kurti, Enantioselective Chemical Synthesis: Methods, Logic, and Practice, Direct Book Publishing LLC, 2010, ISBN 978-0-615-39515-9
  • Elias James Corey, Xue-Min Cheng. The logic of chemical synthesis. Wiley-Interscience, 1995, ISBN 0-471-11594-0.
  • E. J. Corey, Barbara Czako, Laszlo Kurti. Molecules and Medicine John Wiley & Sons, 2008.
  • Name reactions in heterocyclic chemistry / edited by Jie-Jack Li ; scientific editor, E.J. Corey. Hoboken, N.J. : Wiley-Interscience, c2005.
  • Name reactions for functional group transformations / edited by Jie Jack Li, E.J. Corey. Hoboken, N.J. : Wiley-Interscience, c2007.

Altom suicide

Main article: Jason Altom

Among the hundreds of graduate-students supervised by Prof. Corey was Jason Altom.[29] Altom's suicide caused controversy because he explicitly blamed Corey, his research advisor, for his suicide. Corey was devastated and bewildered by Altom's death.[30] Altom cited in his 1998 farewell note "abusive research supervisors" as one reason for taking his life. Altom's suicide note also contained explicit instructions on how to reform the relationship between students and their supervisors. As a result of Altom's death, the Department of Chemistry accepted a proposal allowing graduate students to ask two additional faculty members to play a small advisory role in preparing a thesis.[31]

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) cited the New York Times article on Altom's suicide as an example of problematic reporting,[32] and suggested that Corey was unfairly scapegoated.[33] According to The Boston Globe, Altom's suicide note indicated fear that his career hopes were doomed, but The Globe also cited students and professors as saying that Altom actually retained Corey's support.[30]

Corey Group members

As of 2010, approximately 700 people have been Corey Group members. A database of 580 former members and their current affiliation was developed for Dr. Corey's 80th birthday in July, 2008.[34]

Woodward-Hoffmann rules

When awarded the Priestley Medal in 2004, E. J. Corey created a controversy with his claim to have inspired Robert Burns Woodward prior to the development of the Woodward-Hoffmann rules. Corey wrote:

"On May 4, 1964, I suggested to my colleague R. B. Woodward a simple explanation involving the symmetry of the perturbed (HOMO) molecular orbitals for the stereoselective cyclobutene → 1,3-butadiene and 1,3,5-hexatriene → cyclohexadiene conversions that provided the basis for the further development of these ideas into what became known as the Woodward-Hoffmann rules."[35]

This was Corey's first public statement on his claim that starting on May 5, 1964 Woodward put forth Corey's explanation as his own thought with no mention of Corey and the conversation of May 4. Corey had discussed his claim privately with Hoffmann and close colleagues since 1964. Corey mentions that he made the Priestley statement "so the historical record would be correct".[36]

Corey's claim and contribution were publicly rebutted by Roald Hoffmann in the journal Angewandte Chemie. In the rebuttal, Hoffmann states that he asked Corey over the course of their long discussion of the matter why Corey did not make the issue public. Corey responded that he thought such a public disagreement would hurt Harvard and that he would not "consider doing anything against Harvard, to which I was and am so devoted." Corey also hoped that Woodward himself would correct the historical record "as he grew older, more considerate, and more sensitive to his own conscience."[37] Woodward died suddenly of a heart attack in his sleep in 1979.


E.J. Corey has received more than 40 major awards including the Linus Pauling Award (1973), Franklin Medal (1978), Wolf Prize in Chemistry (1986), National Medal of Science (1988), Japan Prize (1989), Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1990), Roger Adams Award (1993), and the Priestley Medal (2004).[38] He was inducted into the Alpha Chi Sigma Hall of Fame in 1998.[3] As of 2008, he has been awarded 19 honorary degrees from universities around the world including Oxford University (UK), Cambridge University (UK), and National Chung Cheng University.[39] In 2013, the E.J. Corey Institute of Biomedical Research (CIBR) opened in Jiangyin, Jiangsu Province, China.[40]


External links

  • Compiled Works of E.J. Corey at Harvard
  • Compiled Works of E.J. Corey
  • Elias James Corey
  • PDF)

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