Reactions – Stuart Warren

Stuart Warren is in the Department of Chemistry at The University of Cambridge, and worked on new synthetic methods, particularly those involving phosphorus or sulfur, rearrangements and asymmetric synthesis.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I was lucky enough to go to Cheadle Hulme School in Cheshire and be taught chemistry by David Goodison. I had an early love of science and it was not long before David’s thoughtful approach and emphasis on ‘why?’ rather than ‘how?’ led me to prefer chemistry to any other science. I can still picture vividly the day he introduced organic chemistry to us. He used carboxylic acids as examples and I grew angry at this and protested to him that they weren’t acids at all. He smiled and suggested that I wait and see what was to follow. Sometimes people who react quite violently against something come to love it because they are so deeply engaged with it. That was how I came to like organic chemistry. But it was Denis Marrian, Peter Sykes and Malcolm Clark in my undergraduate days at Cambridge who gave organic chemistry the solid intellectual foundation that made me want to do it for the rest of my life.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

I might have wanted to be a professional cricketer, but I wasn’t good enough. I tried biochemistry at Harvard with Frank Westheimer and rejected it in favour of organic chemistry. So no other science. I suppose an actor, a novelist or an Anglican minister.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

I no longer have a research group but my writing continues. I am now working on the second edition of the textbook ‘Organic Chemistry’ with Jonathan Clayden for OUP. Paul Wyatt and I have completed the four books in the Organic Synthesis series for Wiley, the last one to be published later this year. Paul and I also do courses in industry including one on ‘Advanced Heterocyclic Chemistry’ and I have hopes that we might produce a book with that title as the next, and for me probably final, project. It seems me that there is a great need for an accessible, mechanistically oriented book on Heterocyclic Chemistry that tries to explain the reactions rather than give lists of them.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

The Duke of Wellington was a master of the sharp remark, had no patience with administrators, and saw practical results as what really mattered. I want to find out how he got round the British, Spanish and Portuguese administrators in the Peninsular War and what made him persist with the Catholic Emancipation bill when all seemed lost. He would decline the invitation, of course, so maybe it would be Sir Pelham Warner who could describe his very long cricketing career or I could resurrect Charles Rees to continue the many conversations so rudely interrupted by his death.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

In about 1973 Robin Shepherd had completed a series of experiments to establish the stereospecificity of Ph2PO migration. He had an X-ray of the starting material but couldn’t crystallise the product. So I did that, got the X-ray from Luigi Nassimbeni and published the result in Nature. F. H. Allen, O. Kennard, L. R. Nassimbeni, R. G. Shepherd, and S. Warren, Nature 248, 670–671 (1974); Stereochemistry of a carbonium ion rearrangement.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

It would be a very difficult choice between Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Hardy’s or Wordsworth’s collected poems or the Revised New English Bible.

Music is easier: Schubert or Vaughan Williams songs sung by Ian Bostrich or Finzi, Ode on the Intimations of Immortality sung by Ian Partridge. I think I would miss most the wonderful sound of the human voice.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

Guy Lloyd-Jones (Bristol), as his work seems to me to combine the very best in mechanistic analysis and the latest developments in organo-metalic chemistry and asymmetric catalysis. He is one of the sharpest thinkers in the world of organic chemistry today.