Remembering Jack Dunitz—crystallographer and pioneering scientist

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Written by

Pete Wood

Posted on

September 15, 2021

The CCDC team were deeply saddened to hear that Jack Dunitz has passed away at the age of 98. Here we reflect on Jack’s life and work with memories from colleagues and friends.

Jack was a brilliant crystallographer and scientist, teacher and supporter of the Cambridge Structural Database. He was one of the first governors (now trustees) of the CCDC, providing leadership and oversight of our growth and charitable goals from 1987 to 1999.

In his long and varied career he spent time at many leading universities, including The University of Glasgow, The University of Oxford, Caltech, and ETH Zurich where he spent over 30 years as a professor. Over this time he inspired many students with his passion for chemistry. He continued to support the next generation of scientists with the CCDC, attending our annual Science Days (or student days) to hear presentations from CCDC sponsored PhD students.

"Jack attended (almost) every single one of our annual CCDC Student Days, where our CCDC-supported PhD students would come and present their latest research to a broad, friendly, but stretching (!) audience of CCDC staff, academics, and industrial scientists.  As a CCDC-supported PhD student myself, I remember attending my first Student Day back in 2005 feeling extremely lucky, but also very nervous, to be presenting my early research in front of the great Jack Dunitz. He certainly didn't disappoint! Even in his last few Student Days (when he was already well over 90 years of age), Jack continued to ask searching and insightful questions."

Dr Pete Wood, CCDC

Jack also undertook pioneering research, changing our fundamental understanding of chemistry. Together with his friend and collaborator Hans-Beat Bürgi he derived the Bürgi-Dunitz angle - which changed our understanding of chiral reactions and our ability to synthesise enantiomerically pure compounds. He has published hundreds of scientific papers, contributed to numerous books on chemistry and published over 300 structures in the CSD.

"Jack was one of the very first pioneers of using published crystal structures to obtain new insights, his seminal work with Hans-Beat Bürgi and Eli Shefter dating back to the early1970s. He wrote so many incisive papers that it fills me with pride that the only one I wrote with him is one of his most highly cited. It was the best collaboration I've ever had. His contributions as a CCDC governor were unparalleled. We shall miss him but will continue to read his papers for many years to come."

Dr Robin Taylor, Emeritus Research Fellow, CCDC

Indeed it was from his insight and suggestion that we came to add thermal ellipsoids to CSD data, enabling new kinds of analysis and interrogation of crystal structures.

As well as his brilliant scientific work, he will be remembered for his wit and humour, as well as his kindness. Everyone who met Jack liked him, and he took a genuine interest in everybody he met.

"One of my genuine highlights of working at the CCDC was having the opportunity to meet Jack and his wife, hearing their stories and being truly inspired by them. Jack was a brilliant scientist and along the way had worked with many other famous scientists, interacted with politicians worldwide and just had so many interesting stories."

Suzanna Ward, Head of Database and Community, CCDC

We send our condolences from the CCDC team to Jack’s friends, family and all the scientists around the world whom he inspired.

If you have memories of Jack you’d like to share or add to this post, email with your message, name and affiliation.


Crystallographers (6)

History (3)