By Sharon Oosthoek
Victor Snieckus’s colleagues used to joke that if you wanted to track him down, you had to go to the airport. A highly respected synthetic organic chemist, the late Emeritus Bader Chair of Chemistry at Queen’s University was such a sought-after international speaker and collaborator that he was constantly criss-crossing the globe.
Snieckus, who died December 18, 2020, was best-known for his fundamental contributions to organo-lithium chemistry and DOM (directed ortho-metalation) reactions. DOM is widely used in the preparation of pharmaceuticals such as anti-AIDS and anti-inflammatory drugs, and in agrochemicals such as anti-fungals for grain crops.
At conferences, Snieckus was often at the centre of discussions, says P. Andrew Evans, the current Bader Chair in Organic Chemistry. He would toss out questions about the intricacies of certain reactions, whether researchers were “over-selling” them and how useful they might be in reality.
“He was most interested in getting to the truth in chemistry,” says Evans. “He had a love affair with chemistry all his life and never lost that child-like joy in discovering something new.”
But Snieckus’s passion for chemistry could be occasionally eclipsed by his other passion – intiating colleagues and students into the savage mental game of Cardinal Puff.
A drinking game involving a strict sequence of movements of finger tapping, leg tapping, and formal wishes of good health to the cardinal, he rarely lost. “He was cardinal so many times we joked that he must be Pope by now,” says Evans.
Matthew O. Kitching, a former post-doc in Snieckus’s lab and now an assistant professor at Durham University in the UK, recalls his love of chemistry being as infectious as his enthusiasm.
“We would go to the Mansion (a campus bar in Kingston) after group meeting, and I’d leave with napkins and coasters covered in chemical structures and ideas for new reactions to try,” says Kitching. “He genuinely cared for everyone in the group. He made you feel like family.”
Snieckus was born in 1937 in Kaunas, Lithuania, and spent his childhood in Germany during World War II before immigrating to Alberta with his parents in 1948. He got his B.Sc. in chemistry at the University of Alberta in 1959 followed by an M.Sc. from the University of California, Berkeley (1961) and a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon (1965).
Following a post-doctoral position at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa (1965-1966), Victor joined the University of Waterloo as an assistant professor in 1967, rising through the ranks to become Professor of Chemistry (1979-1992) and then the Monsanto/NRC Industrial, Research Chair (1992-1998). In 1998 Victor joined Queens University as the inaugural holder of the prestigious Bader Chair of Chemistry.
Queen’s chemistry department is celebrating his legacy with the Victor Snieckus Memorial Fund, supporting research and teaching in organic chemistry at Queen’s, with a focus on facilitating the work of graduate students and other young scholars.