Martin Saunders

Professor of Chemistry

Martin Saunders, B.A. City College of New York, Ph.D. Harvard University, faculty member at Yale since 1955:  When you retired in January of this year, you had completed sixty-seven years as a professor at Yale – longer, it is thought, than anyone who has ever taught at Yale - and the same number of years that Yale’s great president Ezra Stiles lived. During this time, you gave your heart and soul to Chemistry, making many creative contributions to the field you love.

You came to Yale at the same time as its first nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer, and you immediately saw its potential to become the single most important tool for organic chemists. You were put in charge of this first NMR and, with your insight and discernment, published the first NMR spectrum of a protein, inaugurating what has developed into one of the most powerful tools in structural biology.

The principal goal of physical-organic chemists is to study which atoms move where, how fast, and why during a chemical transformation. Understanding these “mechanisms” confers control over chemical transformations. With your inventiveness, you developed a relatively simple cryogenic (low-temperature) technique, derived from pioneering work by Nobel chemist George Olah, to prolong the life of important “carbonium ion” intermediates so they could be studied by NMR.

You also developed insightful ways to interpret these NMR spectra in isotopically substituted molecules to settle key theoretical questions. It was in this context that you developed the highly original “isotopic perturbation” technique to settle conclusively whether species for which two plausible structures exist are oscillating between the two structures or instead assume a static intermediate structure. Again, with your special creativity, you applied this technique successfully to settle several truly classic conundrums.

As a major scientist who has been the source of many important developments, you have had a remarkable ability to enlist others to carry out important experiments that you have conceived. A colleague claims confidently that you have published papers with more Yale colleagues than any other member of the Chemistry department – no doubt ever.

When fullerenes (hollow “chicken-wire” balls of carbon atoms) were discovered, you sensed the challenge of filling them with “noble” or “inert” gas atoms, so called because of their extreme disinclination to bind permanently with any other atoms or molecules. In typical fashion, you attacked this problem by enlisting Yale colleagues with the requisite equipment and experimental skills as well as a geologist at Buffalo. As might be expected, your own principal experimental contribution to this collaboration involved imaginative original NMR studies with isotopes.

For your contributions to science, you have been elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, and have been given notable awards from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, and the James Flack Norris Award for physical organic chemistry.

What does a faculty member do when he is retiring after sixty-seven years? Well, if he is Martin Saunders, he does not stop working. Your colleagues are not surprised to know that you and one of your former postdocs are in the process of writing a book based on the material you taught in your isotopes course – and they thank you for your years of service and wish you well for the next iteration of your scientific journey.