This is such a sad day for all of us in the Penn family,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said last month. “With Alan’s passing, we have lost not only a great chemist and scientist of extraordinary accomplishment and global stature but also an enthusiastic friend and wonderful colleague who was modest and gracious even as he won the honor of all honors, the Nobel Prize.”
Gutmann was referring, of course, to Dr. Alan MacDiarmid, the Blanchard Professor of Chemistry at Penn and winner (with two other scientists) of the 2000 Nobel Prize in chemistry [“Gazetteer,” Nov/Dec 2000], who died on February 7 from injuries sustained from a fall at his home in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. MacDiarmid, 79, who had been suffering from a leukemia-like blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome, had been rushing to catch a plane to his native New Zealand for a final visit to family and friends when he fell.
MacDiarmid joined the University faculty in 1955. In addition, he had recently accepted the James Von Her Distinguished Chair in Science & Technology, as well as the position of professor of chemistry and physics, at the University of Texas at Dallas. He was actively involved in the establishment of a new institute (the Jilin MacDiarmid Institute) of organic nanomaterials at Jilin University, Changchun, China, and the MacDiarmid Institute of Materials Science and Nanotechnology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
It was in the mid-1970s that MacDiarmid invited Dr. Hideki Shirakawa, a Japanese polymer chemist, to come to the University to study an intriguing lab error. A Korean graduate student in Shirakawa’s laboratory, confused by the language barrier, had mistakenly used 1,000 times the requisite amount of catalyst for a chemical reaction; what emerged was a jelly-like plastic that shined like metal [“The Boy Chemist at 75,”March/April 2002]. Using that mistake as a springboard, MacDiarmid and Shirakawa, along with Dr. Alan Heeger, then a professor of physics at Penn, discovered a new breed of plastics that could conduct electricity. That discovery would lead to a wealth of inventions (including cell-phone displays, light-emitting diodes, and lightweight electromagnetic shields) and more discoveries.
“This award, I think, is an award to Penn, and it’s an award to interdisciplinary science throughout the world,” MacDiarmid said with characteristic generosity when he won the Nobel. “It is also an award to the teaching of young persons and to the teaching of older persons. Because all of us here are students.”
A full obituary will appear in a future issue of the Gazette.