Saul Wolfe, FCIC

Saul Wolfe, FCIC, professor emeritus in the chemistry department at Simon Fraser University, died Aug. 9, 2011 in Vancouver at the age of 78.

Wolfe was born in Toronto on July 2, 1933. He received his undergraduate education at the University of Toronto and graduated as the first PhD student at the University of Ottawa in 1957. After postdoctoral work at the Weizmann Institute of Sciences, Israel, and work as a senior research scientist at Bristol Laboratories, Wolfe joined the department of chemistry at Queen’s University as an assistant professor in 1961. In 1990, he became a professor at SFU and professor emeritus in 1997.

Wolfe’s impact on chemistry was profound and widespread. He championed understanding of the structure of, and synthesis and biosynthesis of, the unstable beta-lactam ring system central to the action of penicillin and related antibiotics. More than 90 papers and 40 patents on the topic established him as a world authority. Wolfe’s studies of the biosynthetic pathways led to some exciting scientific debate internationally. Even more important on a fundamental level was his enthusiastic and often controversial insistence that quantum electronic structure methods, supported by cleverly designed experiments, should be the basis of teaching and understanding reaction structure and mechanism. From the beginning, he recognized the importance of computers and the “new” ab initio electronic structure methods and applied them to conformational and stereochemical analysis when these ideas were in their infancy. Algorithms developed with his student, Berny Schlegel, to determine molecular structure and force fields have found their way into every quantum chemistry computer code in use today. He contributed much of what we know and teach about some of the most fundamental chemical reactions, most notably, the SN2 reaction mechanism, addition to carbonyl groups and reactive intermediates. An early proponent of the idea that electron distributions drive conformations and reactivity, his ideas evolved from lone-pair – lone-pair to frontier orbital and other concepts of qualitative and quantitative perturbational MO theories that constitute the modern way of thinking of chemistry. Wolfe was the first to elaborate the Gauche Effect and provided keen insight into the origin of the Edward-Lemieux (Anomeric) Effect and the Perlin Effect. He promoted the idea that the archaic concept of hybridization be expunged from chemical curricula.

Wolfe made an outstanding contribution to the science of chemistry through his inspirational teaching, timely and eclectic research interests and dedicated efforts to the advancement of medicine through applications of chemistry. Saul’s career spanned almost five decades in one of the most exciting times in the history of chemistry; more than 250 papers, 44 patents and 86 postdoctoral fellows and students contributed much to that excitement.

Wolfe received numerous honours. He was a Canada Council Killam Research Fellow, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a recipient of the first R.U. Lemieux Award of the Canadian Society for Chemistry. Wolfe served as chairman of the International Symposium on Stereochemistry, a member of the NSERC grant selection committee and was on the editorial advisory board of the Canadian Journal of Chemistry.

Wolfe is survived by his wife, Thelma, daughter Lesley (Brian Kenney), son Isaac (Lauren Wolfe), grandson Jayden Wolfe and granddaughter Michayla Wolfe.

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