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Biographical Memoirs: Volume 80
ROBERT BURNS WOODWARD
April 10, 1917–July 8, 1979
BY ELKAN BLOUT
ROBERT BURNS WOODWARD was the preeminent organic chemist of the twentieth century. This opinion is shared by his colleagues, students, and by other distinguished chemists. Bob Woodward was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and was an only child. His father died when Bob was less than two years old, and his mother had to work hard to support her son. His early education was in the Quincy, Massachusetts, public schools. During this period he was allowed to skip three years, thus enabling him to finish grammar and high schools in nine years. In 1933 at the age of 16, Bob Woodward enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study chemistry, although he also had interests at that time in mathematics, literature, and architecture. His unusual talents were soon apparent to the MIT faculty, and his needs for individual study and intensive effort were met and encouraged.
Bob did not disappoint his MIT teachers. He received his B.S. degree in 1936 and completed his doctorate in the spring of 1937, at which time he was only 20 years of age. Immediately following his graduation Bob taught summer school at the University of Illinois, but then returned to Harvard’s Department of Chemistry to start a productive period with an assistantship under Professor E.P.Kohler.