David M. Lemal, a Dartmouth College chemistry professor, was a graduate student in Woodward’s group from 1955 to 1958. He recalls one particular Thursday-night seminar when another graduate student who seemed to have no good prospect of getting a degree anytime soon presented a large body of work done by German chemist Otto Diels in the early 1900s. It was just a large number of different reactions, as Lemal remembers, and it was clear, with the gains chemistry had made in the intervening decades, that Diels’s interpretation of the chemistry was incorrect.
After the student’s presentation, Woodward asked everyone in the room to try to figure out what was actually going on. After 90 minutes of silence and furious scribbling, “Woodward got up and went to the blackboard and reinterpreted this body of work from beginning to end with great clarity in his usual blackboard work that you can photograph and put in a textbook,” Lemal says. Woodward sent the graduate student into the lab to repeat the work with modern analytical tools. The student was able to confirm Woodward’s conclusions and in short order wrote his Ph.D. thesis and graduated.I think that all the tropes of graduate school in chemistry are all there: the group black sheep, the not-so-great group meeting, the extended group meeting and the flash of insight that breaks a grad student free. Not all stories have a happy ending, but this one does. (I wonder what happened to them?)