Terra Sigillata

Dr Ernest Ludwig Eliel (1921 – 2008)

Dr Ernest Eliel, a past-president of the American Chemical Society, passed away in Chapel Hill, NC, on Thursday evening. Dr Eliel was 86.

i-78f8bcf2e2b897c3c23771e677dc82c8-eliel.jpgHis obituary notes:

Born December 28, 1921, in Cologne, Germany, Dr. Eliel was the son of the late Oskar and Luise Tietz Eliel. He moved to the United States in 1946, and received a Ph.D degree from the University of IL at Urbana-Champaign in 1948. Dr. Eliel lived in South Bend, IN, where he taught at the University of Notre Dame from 1948 until 1972, at which time he moved to Chapel Hill, where he was the W.R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received the North Carolina Award in Science in 1986, and received an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from Duke University in 1983 and from Notre Dame in 1990.

He is survived by his wife, Eva Schwarz Eliel; his daughters, Ruth Eliel and Carol Eliel both of Los Angeles, CA; and his grandsons, Ben and Sam Muller.


Dr Eliel also received in 1996 the Priestley Medal, an award to recognize distinguished services to chemistry in honor of Joseph Priestley (who discovered oxygen in 1774).

Beyond his dedication to training several generations of chemists, Dr Eliel was noted most recently for his contributions to the chemistry of chiral chemicals, or pure enantiomer drugs, an area he had been studying since 1962. In fact, the ACS journal, Chirality, designated its Feb 2002 issue to the work of Dr Eliel.

For those of us who whine about how hard science can be today, look at this excerpt from Jeffrey Seeman’s article (PDF here) in that Chirality issue about Dr Eliel:

When the Nazis took power in 1933, economic, social, and cultural life for Germany’s Jews deteriorated suddenly and dramatically. By 1938, the Eliel family had separated: his parents emigrated to what was then officially named Palestine; one of his brothers to Holland, the other to England, Ernest to Scotland, where he was awarded a stipend for 4 years of university studies. Just as he was completing his first year at the University of Edinburgh, Germany invaded Holland and Belgium on May 10, 1940. Two days later, Eliel, ‘as an enemy alien,’ was taken to an internment camp.

France soon thereafter fell and in July, 1940, Eliel was put on a ship and “told that its destination was a military secret. Thus, I left Europe for good. The ship went to Canada.” Following 10 months in a Canadian internment camp, Eliel traveled via Trinidad and Venezuela to Havana, where he lived for 5 years until July, 1946, and emigration to the United States.

I’ll think about this next time the freezer is out of EcoRI.

The American Chemical Society, the largest international scientific society, will likely have some memorial historical remembrance of Dr Eliel.

Similar to my colleague JuniorProf who noted of his relationship with the recently-deceased neuropharmacology giant, Hank Yamamura, I was fortunate to have worked together with Dr Eliel on a science-related project.

More later once the ACS puts up a post . For now, here is the closing from the announcement at the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Chemistry:

Ernest Eliel was a giant in his field who was always gracious and generous with his time. His science and his personality have had an immeasurable impact on the UNC Department of Chemistry. He espoused and contributed to the highly collegial nature of the department, and though we will certainly miss him, his spirit will always be with us because of the great influence that he had on so many people here.