Gilbert Stork

Gilbert Stork
Born(1921-12-31)31 December 1921
Died21 October 2017(2017-10-21) (aged 95)
United States
Alma materUniversity of Florida B.S. 1942
University of Wisconsin–Madison PhD 1945
AwardsACS Award in Pure Chemistry (1957)
William H. Nichols Medal (1980)
NAS Award in Chemical Sciences (1982)
National Medal of Science (1982)
Wolf Prize (1996)
The Ryoji Noyori Prize (2003)
Scientific career
InstitutionsHarvard University
Columbia University
ThesisThe synthesis of 3,4-disubstituted piperidines (1945)
Doctoral advisorSamuel M. McElvain
Notable students

Gilbert Stork (December 31, 1921 – October 21, 2017) was an organic chemist. For a quarter of a century he was the Eugene Higgins Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Columbia University. He is known for making significant contributions to the total synthesis of natural products, including a lifelong fascination with the synthesis of quinine. In so doing he also made a number of contributions to mechanistic understanding of reactions, and performed pioneering work on enamine chemistry, leading to development of the Stork enamine alkylation.: 111  It is believed he was responsible for the first planned stereocontrolled synthesis as well as the first natural product to be synthesised with high stereoselectivity.

Stork was also an accomplished mentor of young chemists and many of his students have gone on to make significant contributions in their own right.

Early years

Gilbert Stork was born in the Ixelles municipality of Brussels, Belgium on December 31, 1921. The oldest of 3 children, his middle brother, Michel, died in infancy, but he remained close with his younger sister Monique his whole life. His family had Jewish origins, although Gilbert himself didn't recall them being religiously active. The family moved to Nice when Gilbert was about 14 (circa. 1935) and remained there until 1939. During this period, Gilbert completed his lycée studies, distinguishing himself in French literature and writing. Characterizing himself during those years as "not terribly self-confident," and uncertain whether he could find employment in a profession he enjoyed, Gilbert considered applying for a colonial civil service job in French Indochina. However, the outbreak of World War II that year led the family to flee to New York, where his father's older brother, Sylvain, had already emigrated.


Gilbert studied for a Bachelor of Science at the University of Florida, from 1940 to 1942. He then moved to the University of Wisconsin–Madison for this PhD, which he obtained in 1945 under the supervision of Samuel M. McElvain. While at Wisconsin he met Carl Djerassi, with whom he would go on to form a lasting friendship.


  • 1946 Harvard University: Instructor; 1948 Assistant Professor
  • 1953 Columbia University: Associate Professor; 1955 Professor; 1967–1993 Eugene Higgins Professor; *1993 Professor Emeritus

Elected to


The explosive steak

During his time at the University of Wisconsin, Stork kept a steak on his windowsill in the winter in order to keep it refrigerated. The steak began to degrade and to dispose of it Stork put it in a hot acid bath used to clean glassware which contained nitric and sulphuric acids. He was then concerned he would produce nitroglycerine due to the glycerine in the steak and the presence of nitric and sulphuric acids. However, due to the high temperature of the bath, the oxidation of glycerol was much faster than the nitration of glycerin thus preventing the formation of explosives.

Awarded Honorary Fellowship or membership


Professor Stork received a number of awards and honors including the following:

Stork also held honorary doctorates from Lawrence University, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of Paris, the University of Rochester, and Columbia University.

The inaugural Gilbert Stork Lecture was held in his honor in 2014 at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Gilbert Stork named lecture series are also held at other institutions, including Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania, as a result of his endowments.

He was fêted for his sense of humor and colorful personality by historian of chemistry Jeffrey I. Seeman who published a collection of "Storkisms".

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