Nobel laureate K. Barry Sharpless (Photo by Ike Sharpless)
Nobel laureate K. Barry Sharpless (Photo by Ike Sharpless)

2019 Priestley Medal goes to K. Barry Sharpless

The American Chemical Society (ACS) has awarded the 2019 Priestley Medal to Nobel laureate K. Barry Sharpless, PhD, W.M. Keck Professor of Chemistry at Scripps Research. The medal is the highest honor given by the ACS and recognizes Sharpless’ “invention of catalytic, asymmetric oxidation methods, the concept of ‘click’ chemistry, and development of the copper-catalyzed version of the azide-acetylene cycloaddition reaction.”

June 28, 2018

“I am honored beyond imagining just seeing my name on the same list with two of my chemical gods—George Hammond and Henry Taube,” says Sharpless. “All I’ve ever wanted to do, what I still do, is invent better ways for chemists to do chemistry.”

The concept of click chemistry has opened the door for the development of new chemical reactions, new drug therapies and new materials. “Among the many fundamental contributions to new chemical reactions from the Sharpless lab, click chemistry, for example, truly exemplifies how the creation of basic knowledge in chemistry can profoundly impact biology, medicine and materials,” says Ben Shen, PhD, co-chair of the Department of Chemistry at Scripps Research.

Sharpless is known for taking risks in uncharted territory to develop new chemical tools and methods. For example, in 1992, his lab became the world’s first in academia to use robotics for running chemical reactions. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001 for his work on chirally catalysed oxidation reactions. But at the same time, he was also lecturing on a new method he’d invented for the rapid discovery of useful chemical function—click chemistry used reliable, spring-loaded, easy-to-perform reactions to ‘click’ together molecular building blocks with desirable properties. 

Pioneered by Sharpless and colleagues M.G. Finn, PhD, and Hartmuth Kolb, PhD, click chemistry was initially met with skepticism from much of the chemical community. It took a while for the Scripps Research click chemists to produce the reactions and applications that got click chemistry rolling, but within a decade its success garnered Sharpless fourth place in Thomson Reuters' ranking of the world’s highest-impact chemists during the first decade of the 21st century.

“Dr. Sharpless has made numerous contributions to chemistry that have each significantly moved the field forward,” says Thomas Connelly, PhD, ACS executive director and CEO, in a statement. “Whether his work in asymmetric synthesis, which earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001, or the development of the concept of click chemistry, his service to advancing chemistry is beyond measure. He is truly deserving of the Priestley Medal and I offer my heartfelt congratulations.”

“His distinguished service to the field of chemistry extends beyond the development of click reactions, to include his pioneering work in the discovery of asymmetric epoxidations, and to his recent innovative sulfur VI exchange chemistry,” says Jeffery Kelly, PhD, Lita Annenberg Hazen Professor of Chemistry and co-chair of the Department of Chemistry at Scripps Research.

“Barry is inspirational to all of us who use chemistry to better society,” adds Shen.

Sharpless will receive the medal in 2019, in conjunction with the 257th ACS National Meeting.

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