All-Male Tetrahedron Prize for Creativity: an illustration of the climate for women in synthetic chemistry

Looking down the list of past winners of the Tetrahedron Prize for Creativity, I see NO WOMEN. Only men. This is simultaneously astonishing and totally unsurprising to me given that the description of the prize is this:

The Tetrahedron Prize for Creativity in Organic Chemistry was established in 1980 by the Executive Board of Editors and the Publisher of Tetrahedron Publications. It is intended to honour the memory of the founding co-Chairmen of these publications, Professor Sir Robert Robinson and Professor Robert Burns Woodward.

The Tetrahedron Prize is awarded on an annual basis for creativity in Organic Chemistry or Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry. The prize consists of a gold medal, a certificate, and a monetary award of US $10,000. It is awarded to an Organic or Medicinal Chemist who has made significant original contributions to the field, in its broadest sense (emphasis added). On some occasions, the Prize may be awarded jointly to two winners in which case two medals are presented. The winner is expected to write an appropriate article for Tetrahedron or Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry as part of a Symposium-in-Print compiled in their honour.

Since the 1980s, this committee has not been able to find ANY worthy female organic, bioorganic, or medicinal chemists? Seriously? Not even Gertrude Elion, a female chemist who was still alive until 1999, so that they had almost 20 years in which to notice she would have been an excellent fit, and obviously quite deserving as a winner of a Nobel Prize in Medicine (her advanced age from 1980 to 1999 is no excuse; certainly plenty of the past winners were no spring roosters when they were graced with this award). Or Gunda Georg, who has published almost 200 papers in the medicinal chemistry field, and has been a leader in that area for many years. Or Barbara Imperiali, Carolyn Bertozzi, or Laura Kiessling, just to name three prominent female chemists who grew into leadership in the field during the later 1990s and early 2000s. Or in the last five years or so, two other emerging leaders in synthetic and bioorganic chemistry, Anna Mapp and Melanie Sanford, both at Michigan and pioneers in chemical biology and synthetic methodology development, respectively.

I suspect that part of this is the culture in the synthetic organic chemistry community to value fundamental methodology more than practical application. Sorry, but I don't count natural product synthesis as practical application, because really: a 35-step synthesis to obtain 0.01 mg of the final product? That was just an excuse for you to showcase your fancy fundamental methodology, not a REAL practical application. There's this kind of dude-bro climate in organic chemistry (which I know first hand) where the rewards come for things like how stereoselective your reaction was, rather than how much it helped us learn about other things, and which may, in at least part, explain the growing divide of people (men and women alike) who are tired of that and are moving into areas like chemical biology (which is synthesis for understanding biology's sake, rather than for synthesis' sake). Organic synthesis in what some would call its "purest" form is kinda on the way out--and maybe that's partly because of the way this community has been built and has excluded a lot of enthusiastic people doing awesome, but "impure" science.

Overall, this list of past winners illustrates perfectly the retention problem that organic chemistry has for women. When the same old usual suspects continually end up in the list of who is most important and creative, it's a self-fulfilling cycle that keeps them in the lead and contributes to pushing others out. Many other organizations (like the ACS) are doing a much better job of addressing this and expanding the diversity of their awardee pool. Elsevier and the Tetrahedron Prize need to get with the times, and we as a community need to start nominating these amazing women so that they have no excuse. I think I've identified my next project...

4 thoughts on “All-Male Tetrahedron Prize for Creativity: an illustration of the climate for women in synthetic chemistry

  1. Yes!! Simultaneously astonishing/horrifying and yet totally unsurprising. Please post if/when you figure out how to nominate people, so we can all help.

  2. I'm sorry I am so late on replying to you--and now we are only a few days away from the March 31st deadline! The process is a little involved--you have to write up a cover letter describing accomplishments, submit a biosketch and pubs list, and get two supporting letters. Might be too short a time frame now but just in case you wanted to try to nominate someone:

    • Sure, but achieving stereoselectivity in a process scaleable route is critical to real drug development vs. just compound library synthesis. Those natural products synthesis dudes (traditionally--although "my" generation of chemists is a lot better about this) don't give a rat's ass if the yield is bad or it uses GMP-incompatible reagents, they just want to say they made this ridiculously complicated molecule for the sake of it, not because that molecule will ever be a viable drug. These are the kinds of attitudes I've seen displayed by many of the dudes in that list of Tetrahedron Prize winners.

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