Howard Zimmerman, pioneer in organic chemistry, dies at 85

Feb. 16, 2012

by David Tenenbaum

Howard Zimmerman, a professor of chemistry from 1960 until his retirement in 2010, died on Saturday, Feb. 11 as a result of a fall.

Photo: Howard Zimmerman

Zimmerman

Zimmerman helped establish the field of organic photochemistry -- the study of how light affects and initiates chemical reactions.  By applying the theory of quantum mechanics to these reactions, he was able to develop predictive and explanatory theories. 

“Howard was a major figure in photochemistry,” says Bassam Shakhashiri, professor of chemistry. “His research was renowned worldwide; the American Chemical Society gave him awards, and asked him to give short courses. He was very dedicated, sharply focused on his research.”

Hans Reich, a professor of chemistry at University of Wisconsin-Madison who had a neighboring lab in the chemistry department, remembers “a larger-than-life figure in chemistry. He was a member of the National Academy of Science for many years; he was a real pioneer in the study of photochemistry and published hundreds of papers. He was a pioneer in developing theories of how these reactions work and how you can predict reactions logically instead of having to do experiments.”

Which is not to say that Zimmerman disdained experiments, notes Patrick Mariano, who was a member of the “Z group” in the 1960s. “He said a good experiment trumps everything else, and it would last forever, but the interpretation may only last for a decade,” he says.

Richard Givens, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Kansas, recalls that Zimmerman “had a way of reducing complex problems to very understandable ones. For those of us who were 21 years old, he was able to take very complex ideas and concepts, and reduce them to an easily understood form that could be used to solve problems. He was interested in the fundamental aspects of organic reactions, he developed breakthroughs in understanding photochemistry, in how molecules are raised to the excited state and why.”

One of Zimmerman's papers on reactions used by numerous synthetic organic chemists, “must among the most cited papers in the history of organic chemistry,” says Mariano, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of New Mexico.

Mariano also remembers Zimmerman as an excellent mentor. “He was unique in the intensity of his concern that his people get the best positions possible. And it did not stop there. Throughout my professional career, he remained intensely interested in my progress.”

Other former students stressed that mentorship as well.

“He was tenacious in his problem-solving and supportive of his students,” says Givens, who studied with Zimmerman in the 1960s. “He was very attentive to what we were doing in the lab, would visit frequently and ask how it was going. He was definitely a hands-on professor, he worked hard with you try to get to the solution of the research problem, to understand a reaction or synthesize a new compound.”

Laren Tolbert, who received his Ph.D. in 1975, recalls exacting standards in the lab. "He was a stickler for detail, for accuracy in well-run experiments, for making sure the data was there to support your claim."

“He was not a warm-and-fuzzy guy, and some viewed him as a very difficult taskmaster,” says Tolbert, a professor of chemistry at Georgia Tech. “He believed in the students working extremely hard, had low tolerance for slacking off, and was proudest of the ‘silver spatula award,’ given to the students who worked on holidays. But he was also very loyal. Once you got a Ph.D. from him, he would support you to the ends of the earth.”

“There would not be a single person who would disagree that he an extremely good mentor,” agrees Mariano.

At a symposium in his honor in September, Zimmerman “was in such good spirits and good health, he was sharp minded and gave fantastic talk,” says Mariano. “His death was a such shock.”

Zimmerman is survived by his wife, Peggy, and by three sons from his first marriage.

The chemistry department has established a fund at the UW Foundation for donations in Howard's memory.  Memorials can be made payable to the UW Foundation–Howard E. Zimmerman Memorial Fund, US Bank Lockbox 78807, Milwaukee, WI  53278.