Friday 15 May 2009

In Praise of Edward C. Taylor

In this age of cynicism tinged by fear and insecurity, it’s all too easy to forget that there are people out there who inspire us far beyond the ordinary. I’m not thinking of Jack Welsh or Rudi Giuliani or the latest hero of the month, but those few who, by their selfless example, contribute lasting benefits to humanity.

Yesterday, I was reading through the April issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly-one of these things I do without paying any real attention. Yet right inside the front cover, I saw the photo of a professor who had co-taught a Chemistry course I took a long time ago. I recognised his photo immediately, a soft-spoken, tweedy professor visibly and wholly in love with organic chemistry.

Edward C. Taylor (universally known as “Ted”) joined Princeton in 1954. He taught thousands of undergraduates and graduates during his teaching career at Princeton. In his research, he developed hundreds of chemical compounds, one of which made it to the break-through stage. This compound, Alimta is a heterocyclic, 2-ring chemical compound effective against lung cancer and several other forms of cancer. After years of research, he approached Eli Lilly, and in 1985 FDA clinical trials begain. Alimta was approved by the FDA in 2004, and has since helped thousands of cancer patients.

Ted was named a Hero of Chemistry by the American Chemical Society for this discovery. Along the way, he imparted his love of organic chemistry to thousands of undergrads who took that same introductory chemistry course. I still have the textbook: Bodner and Pardue – Chemistry: An Experimental Science.

What really moved me was learning that he donated his royalty income from Alimta to build a new, state-of-the-art, 263,000 square-foot laboratory to replace Princeton’s current chemistry lab. This lab will transform the research and teaching facilities, and hopefully provide the foundation for the next generation of breakthrough discoveries.

To me, dealing every day with the corporate effects of the debt bubble, and living in the dog-eat-dog environment of Greece where stories of corruption and failed expectations rule the daily news cycle, this is a welcome, entirely unexpected source of inspiration and hope.

I wish we had more gentle, unassuming professors dedicating their lives to research and development that visibly serves human progress and welfare.

I wish we had more researchers who donated their royalties develop state-of-the-art teaching and research facilities.

I wish we had more institutions like Princeton, which have so clearly inspired their faculty, students and staff.

Most of all, I wish I had paid more attention to Ted. Organic chemistry was probably my least favourite subject, and I certainly didn’t do well in that course. Yet here he is, smiling out of the Princeton Alumni Weekly in front of a chalkboard with a chemical formula and structure drawn on it, as he did week after week, year after year at Princeton. That brought back some unexpected memories.

JRR Tolkien wrote that we often find hope in the most unexpected of places. I renewed my hope, my optimism yesterday. God bless you Ted, and thanks.

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