Herbert Charles Brown

Herbert Charles Brown (1912-2004) was a Nobel laureate and was one of the leading American chemists of the 20th century. He shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1979 with Georg Witt for his work with organoboranes. He is best known for his work in introducing boron compounds as important reagents in synthesis and major contributions to organic chemistry.

Herbert C. Brown

Born :
May 22, 1912 (London, UK)
Died :
December 19, 2004 (West Lafayette)
Nationality :

Field :
Organic Chemistry

Known for :

Photo courtesy :

Early Life:

He was born Herbert Charles Brovarnik to Charles Brovarnik and Pearl Gorinstein on May 22, 1912 in London, England. They belong to Ukrainian Jewish family migrated from Zhitomir in 1908. Later their family migrated to Chicago in America when he was 2 years old and his last name was Anglicized to Brown.

Education and personal life:

According to his autobiography, Herbert Charles Brown showed unusual advancement all through his education and untiring career regardless of the hardships he surmounted. He graduated at 12 from primary school and went to Englewood High School in Chicago. After his father's death in 1926 he left school to work in their store. In 1929 when his mother finally decided to attend the store, he continued studies and graduated in 1930. He won a national prize at high school for his humor column in the school paper.

After undergoing difficulties in finding a permanent job, Brown had decided to go to college where even his obscurities continued until he joined Nicholas Cheronis's laboratory in 1933. There he loved Sarah Baylen who later became his wife. Brown said, Sarah predicted him as a Nobel Laureate in his year book when they graduated from Wright Junior College in 1935. Later Brown received B.S in 1936 from University of Chicago after completing his junior and senior year in three quarters. He decided to find a job and marry Sarah Baylen. However, he began his graduate work with Julius Stieglitz, a famous organic chemist. He married Sarah on February 6, 1937 who stood by him in every step of his career and credited as the person who triggered the interest in boron chemistry when she gifted the book The hydrides of boron and silicon by Alfred Stock after his graduation.

Academic Career:

Brown received his Ph.D. in 1938 and initiated his academic career with a post doctorate position with M. S. Kharasch. After a year, he was invited by Hermann Irving Schlesinger to be his research assistant with the rank of Instructor. With difficulties in achieving tenure, after four years Brown undertook Assistant Professor position at Wayne and became Associate Professor in 1946. He joined Purdue University in 1947 as a Professor for inorganic chemistry where he continued to become Wetherill Distinguished Professor in 1959 and Wetherill Research Professor in 1960. In 1978 he became Emeritus but continued to be an active researcher with many post doctorates until his death in 2004 .

Scientific Contributions:

Herbert Charles Brown worked primarily in organic chemistry and his studies revolutionized the synthetic organic chemistry. His primary research involved the study of steric effects, the development of quantitative methods to determine steric strains, the examination of the chemical effects of steric strains, the non-classical ion problem, the basic properties of aromatic hydrocarbons, a quantitative theory of aromatic substitution, and the development of a set of electrophilic substitution constants, which correlate aromatic substitution data and a wide variety of electrophilic reactions.

He discovered a synthetic method to produce sodium borohydride (NaBH4) while working on boranes with Hermann Irving Schlesinger during World War II. Later at Purdue University, he continued to focus on reduction studies on borohydrides, hydroboration discovery. His studies explored organoborane chemistry and developed general program to synthesize asymmetric enantiomers. In 1956 he discovered the conversion of unsaturated organic molecules to organoboranes through hydroboration. This developed various combinations of hydrogen and boron in synthesizing new pharmaceutical and organic compounds.


Along with Nobel prize in 1979, Herbert C. Brown was honored with number of awards. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1957, and was awarded the US National Medal of Science in 1969, Madison Marshal award in 1975, Priestly medal in 1981, Perkin medal in 1982.