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History - People - Franz Sondheimer FRS

Franz Sondheimer FRS

Franz Sondheimer FRS

Professor 1967 - 1981

Franz Sondheimer was renowned for hitting two jackpots in his research career: first the synthesis of the biologically active steroids, and then the preparation and study of polyunsaturated hydrocarbon rings, the annulenes.

His family came as refugees from Germany in 1937, when he was 11 years old, and spoke no English. He graduated at Imperial College, then worked first with Sir Ian Heilbron, and then with Sir Ewart Jones and Ralph Raphael, on acetylene chemistry.

In 1948 he went to work with R.B. Woodward at Harvard. Their research on the steroids set new standards in organic synthesis, and Franz provided much of the drive and experimetal skill that brought this work to a successful conclusion and established it as one of the classics of organic synthesis.
He continued in this field after he succeeded Karl Djerassi, the inventor of the Pill, at Syntex in 1952, and developed routes to the compounds related both to cortisone and to the sex hormones.

After he had moved to the Weizmann Institute in 1956, he picked up again the work on acetylenes that he had done at Imperial College. He was able to couple terminal diacetylenes to give cyclic oligoacetylenes, which could then be manipulated to give macrocyclic analogues of benzene, the first being [18]annulene, (CH)18. The properties of these annulenes, particularly their NMR spectra, provided a brilliant endorsement of the molecular orbital model of the principles of aromaticity and Hückel's 4n+2 rule.

He moved to Cambridge in 1963, and then came to UCL, with Peter Garratt , in 1967. Peter still carries the scars which show the hazards of working with metal acetylides. Franz died tragically in 1981 while he was spending a sabbatical period at Stanford University, California.

A more detailed biography can be found as a Biographical Memoir of the Royal Society, 1982 , 28, 505-534.

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