Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
La Primavera: An Autobiographical Remembrance
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Courtesy Jack Dunitz.
Courtesy Jack Dunitz.
The Dunitz family, ca. 1930s

"Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!"
Edward Fitzgerald, 1809-1883

It is a delicate matter to write about oneself, about one’s plain own achievements. It is difficult to attain and maintain the necessary degree of objectivity that keeps a balance between under- and overestimation of one's abilities, between undue modesty and self-satisfied complacency. Even if one tries to be objective about the past, memory is fallible. The lens through which it views the past is selective and liable to omissions, extensions and plain mistakes. From a distance we look backwards with a false and distorting perspective, which may sometimes make things better than they actually were, and sometimes worse. Yet, fully aware of all these difficulties and dangers, I feel a certain responsibility to try to account for my actions. In this past terrible century, where so many people have undergone appalling suffering, I have enjoyed the privilege of a long and happy life. In a century where so many people were destined to be murdered or murderers, I was fortunate in escaping both these destinies. My life has been free from tragedy for me and my family, I have never suffered the pangs of real hunger, have lived for the most part in comfort and plenty, have enjoyed good health, and have not been condemned to a job I hated or even one in which I was bored. In fact, I have had the enormous good fortune to spend my time more or less as I liked to spend it — in inventing and solving scientific problems, mainly in structural chemistry, problems that to the best of my knowledge have had no practical relevance, neither for good nor for evil. The last half-century has probably been the only time in history when such a thing was possible, when a person of modest abilities could enjoy a comfortable existence doing whatever seemed interesting. I feel I have been tremendously fortunate.

After some self-questioning, I decided to agree to write something about my history but to keep to the first, itinerant stage of my scientific life — Glasgow, Oxford, Pasadena, Oxford, Pasadena, Bethesda Maryland, London — the springtime of my life, the period before I settled down in Zurich.. That early part is divided into sub-periods, each lasting a couple of years, which stand out separately so that each seems have an own individuality, whereas the subsequent three decades of summer and two of autumn fall merge into a sort of continuum in which it is more difficult to distinguish any underlying pattern, except that in 1990 my official position as professor at the ETH Zurich ended. In fact, during the Zurich period, it is the absences from Zurich that stand out — visiting appointments in different parts of the world, travels to international meetings — the events that break the uniformity of the general background in which, of course, most of my work was done. Another reason for concentrating on my early years is that I feel I can be more objective towards that young scientist stumbling over his first steps in science than towards my more recent self. Indeed, when I see myself in photographs from that period (and earlier), I experience very little connection between that person in front of the camera and my present day self. It is as if I were looking at a portrait of someone else, someone I used to know fairly well, but whom I haven't seen for a long time. When I have told friends about my lack of identification with my former self, I have been warned that this kind of self-estrangement is a symptom of possibly severe psychoanalytical disturbance. I considered the possibility of writing this memoir about myself in the third person: Jack did this and then Jack did that, but when I wrote some sentences in that style it seemed unnatural.

I do not remember ever having made a conscious choice or decision to follow a career in science. It just happened, as in a dream. In a dream you don't do things, things happen to you. Near the beginning, during the early 1940's, I was a student of chemistry at Glasgow University, ignorant not only of chemistry but of almost everything else, an innocent in every way one can imagine. I did not choose chemistry. My mother would have liked me to study medicine, my headmaster tried to push me into the study of classics. I did not much fancy either of these possibilities. The science teacher at my school, John McLennan, chose chemistry for me by making it interesting. Likewise, I did not choose crystallography. Crystallography chose me. As a frustrated mathematician, my interests were mainly in physical chemistry. After a somewhat compressed wartime three-year crash course in chemistry, most of the Phys. Chem. students were funneled off for work about which they were not allowed to talk (now we know it was radar research), but in 1943 John Monteath Robertson returned to Glasgow as newly appointed Gardiner Professor and needed a few doctoral students to carry out work in X-ray crystallography and molecular structure studies. At that time and place, there was no question of a student choosing a research supervisor or a line of research. It was still wartime. "You, you and you will report for duty at such and such a locality, you, you and you will stay on here and work for Robertson" and so it was that I came to chemical crystallography. One of the others directed to work for Robertson was John White. Later, as assistant professor at Princeton, he started a program of research on the crystal structure elucidation of vitamin B 12, quite independently of Dorothy Hodgkin’s work on the problem in Oxford. When they learned of each other's work, they combined their results. The first publications on the work were joint papers, from both groups. It seems ironic that for their respective contributions Dorothy was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize while John was not given tenure at Princeton. Later, he became a professor at Fordham University, New York. Another student sent to work with Robertson was Ian Dawson, who later joined the faculty at Glasgow, where he developed electron microscopy and was the first to observed growth spiral steps in crystals of long-chain hydrocarbons. After a few months we were joined by Alexander (Sandy) Mathieson, who later emigrated to Australia and built up a strong chemical crystallography group at the CSIRO in Melbourne. We had a wonderful time together. As Robertson was much away on official duties, and as there was no formal post-graduate course of study, we taught one another what we had taught ourselves about the theory and practice of crystal structure analysis.

And so it went on. In the autumn of 1946, chance took me to work with Dorothy Hodgkin at the Chemical Crystallography Laboratory at Oxford. In early 1948, Linus Pauling came to Oxford as Eastman Visiting Professor. Through the happy intervention of his younger colleague Verner Schomaker, who visited our laboratory on an early summer afternoon when Dorothy was absent and talked to me instead, I was invited to be a research fellow at Caltech (1948-1951). Then back to Oxford (1951-1953), then back to Pasadena for a further year, then to the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. (1954-1955), and then in 1956 to the Royal Institution in London, where Sir Lawrence Bragg, recently appointed as Director after his retirement from his professorship at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, was recruiting a group of young crystallographers. After only a year and a half in London, I landed in 1957 at the Organic Chemistry Laboratory of the ETH in Zurich, to join an illustrious group of natural philosophers there, my friends and colleagues for the last fifty years and more, during which we have argued and discussed and learned together about chemistry and molecular structure and about everything else under the sun.

It seems like an erratic somnambulistic path. Among the things that were happening to me, did I make one single decision? Yes! In 1953 I decided to marry Barbara Steuer — or was that also decided for me? Our years together have made my life richer in countless ways. We have been blessed with two wonderful daughters, six wonderful grandchildren and one wonderful great granddaughter (so far, as of October 2012). I am also fortunate in having been taught over the years by a series of students, postdocs, and assistants, from whom I have learned nearly everything I know. It has been my privilege to share in the development of our science during the last half-century and more. I do not regret a minute of it. If I had another life I would be happy to live it along much the same lines as I have lived this one.