"Radical" Discovery Advances Medicine and Plastics

Immigrant Chemist's Revolutionary Finding Honored as Historic Landmark

When University of Michigan chemist Moses Gomberg announced in 1900 that he had isolated an organic free radical - a carbon molecule with an odd number of electrons - the chemistry establishment greeted the news with skepticism, then dismissed it as a curiosity. A century later, Gomberg's breakthrough has led to profound advances in biochemistry, biology and medicine, as well as the production of plastics for everything from children's toys to the space shuttle.

The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, will designate Moses Gomberg's discovery of organic free radicals a National Historic Chemical Landmark at a ceremony June 25 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The university is celebrating the centennial of Gomberg's work and will receive a commemorative plaque from ACS President Daryle Busch.

Most 19th century chemists believed it was impossible to isolate an organic free radical - a molecule with a free electron capable of pairing with an electron of another molecule. They had learned that electrons generally travel in pairs, and pair up quickly. The existence of organic free radicals seemed unlikely, especially since all attempts to find one had proved futile.

Gomberg succeeded where others had failed, but it took three decades for the world to recognize the significance of his finding that organic free radicals did in fact exist.

Beginning in the 1930s, experimentation with organic free radicals led to the development of polyethylene, Plexiglas and other polymers used to make kitchen counters, telephones, sporting goods, toys, and countless other products. Today, organic free radicals are involved in manufacturing nearly half the polymers we use, from plastic packaging to latex paint.

More recently, organic free radicals have played a pivotal role in basic research. They explain why some oxidation processes support li

Contact: Hillarie Fogel
American Chemical Society

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