Jean-Marie Lehn (1)
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1987
I was born on September 30 1939 in Rosheim, a small medieval city of Alsace in France. My father, Pierre Lehn, then a baker, was very interested in music, played the piano and the organ and became later, having given up the bakery, the organist of the city. My mother Marie kept the house and the shop. I was the eldest of four sons and helped out in the shop with my first brother. I grew up in Rosheim during the years of the second world war, went to primary school after the war and, at age eleven, I entered high school, the Collège Freppel, located in Obernai, a small city about five kilometers from Rosheim. During these years I began to play the piano and the organ, and with time music has become my major interest outside science. My high school studies from 1950 to 1957 were in classics, with latin, greek, german, and english languages, french literature and, during the last year, philosophy, on which I was especially keen. However, I also became interested in sciences, especially chemistry, so that I obtained the baccalaureat in Philosophy in July 1957 and in Experimental Sciences in September of the same year.
I envisaged to study philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, but being still undecided, I began with first year courses in physical, chemical and natural sciences (SPCN). During this year 1957/58, I was impressed by the coherent and rigorous structure of organic chemistry. I was particularly receptive to the experimental power of organic chemistry, which was able to convert at will, it seemed, complicated substances into one another following well defined rules and routes. I bought myself compounds and glassware and began performing laboratory practice experiments at my parents home. The seed was sown, so that when, the next year, I followed the stimulating lectures of a newly appointed young professor, Guy Ourisson, it became clear to me that I wanted to do research in organic chemistry.
After having obtained the degree of Licencié-ès-Sciences (Bachelor), I entered Ourisson’s laboratory in October of 1960, as a junior member of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in order to work towards a Ph.D. degree. This was the first decisive stage of my training. My work was concerned with conformational and physico-chemical properties of triterpenes. Being in charge of our first NMR spectrometer, I was led to penetrate more deeply into the arcanes of this very powerful physical method; this was to be of much importance for later studies. My first scientific paper in 1961 reported an additivity rule for substituent induced shifts of proton NMR signals in steroid derivatives.
Having obtained my degree of Docteur ès Sciences (Ph.D.) in June of 1963, I spent a year in the laboratory of Robert Burns Woodward at Harvard University, where I took part in the immense enterprise of the total synthesis of Vitamin B12. This was the second decisive stage of my life as a researcher. I also followed a course in quantum mechanics and performed my first computations with Roald Hoffmann. I had the chance to witness in 1964 the initial stages of what was to become the Woodward-Hoffmann rules.
After my return to Strasbourg, I began to work in the area of physical organic chemistry, where I could combine the knowledge acquired in organic chemistry, in quantum theory and on physical methods. It was clear that, in order to be able to better analyze physical properties of molecules, a powerful means was to synthesize compounds that would be especially well suited for revealing a given property and its relationships to structure. This orientation characterized the years 1965- 1970 of my activities and of my young laboratory, newly established after my appointment in 1966 as maître de conférences (assistant professor) at the Chemistry Department of the Univerity of Strasbourg. Our main research topics were concerned with NMR studies of conformational rate processes, nitrogen inversion, quadrupolar relaxation, molecular motions and liquid structure, as well as ab initio quantum chemical computations of inversion barriers, of electronic structures and later on, of stereoelectronic effects.
While pursuing these projects, my interest for the processes occurring in the nervous system (stemming diffusely from the first year courses in biology as well as from my earlier inclination towards philosophy), led me to wonder how a chemist might contribute to their study. The electrical phenomena in nerve cells depend on sodium and potassium ion distributions across membranes. A possible entry into the field was to try to affect the processes which allow ion transport and gradients to be established. I related this to the then very recent observations that natural antibiotics were able to make membranes permeable to cations. It thus appeared possible to devise chemical substances that would display similar properties. The search for such compounds led to the design of cation cryptates, on which work was started in October 1967. This area of research expanded rapidly, taking up eventually the major part of my group and developing into what I later on termed “supramolecular chemistry”. Organic, inorganic and biological aspects of this field were explored and investigations are continuing. In 1976 another line of research was started in the area of artificial photosynthesis and the storage and chemical conversion of solar energy; it was first concerned with the photoly is of water and later with the photoreduction of carbon dioxide.
I was promoted associate professor in early 1970 and full professor in October of the same year. I spent the two spring semesters of 1972 and 1974 as visiting professor at Harvard University giving lectures and directing a research project. This relationship extended on a loose basis to 1980. In 1979, I was elected to the chair of “Chimie des Interactions Moléculaires” at the Collège de France in Paris. I took over the chemistry laboratory of the Collège de France when Alain Horeau retired in 1980 and thereafter divided my time between the two laboratories in Strasbourg and in Paris, a situation continuing up to the present. New lines of research developed, in particular on combining the recognition, transport and catalytic properties displayed by supramolecular species with the features of organized phases, the long range goal being to design and realize “molecular devices”, molecular components that would eventually be able to perform signal and information processing at the molecular level. A major research effort is presently also devoted to supramolecular self-organisation, the design and properties of “programmed” supramolecular systems.
The scientific work, performed over twenty years with about 150 collaborators from over twenty countries, has been described in about 400 publications and review papers. Over the years I was visiting professor at other institutions, the E.T.H. in Zürich, the Universities of Cambridge, Barcelona, Frankfurt.
In 1965 I married Sylvie Lederer and we have two sons, David (born 1966) and Mathias (born 1969).
From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1987, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1988
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/Nobel Lectures. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
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