Eugene van Tamelen dies at 84; pioneering Stanford chemist

Eugene van Tamelen received virtually all of the top awards presented by the American Chemical Society.

Eugene van Tamelen, a Stanford chemist who was a pioneer in determining the structure of complex natural molecules and then synthesizing them, died Dec. 12 of cancer, the university announced. He was 84.

He was “an exceptional intellect, with an extraordinary imagination,” said chemist John Brauman, now a professor emeritus at Stanford. “He was constantly inventing new reactions and new approaches to interesting molecules.”

Van Tamelen obituary: The obituary of Stanford chemist Eugene van Tamelen in Monday’s Section A said that Van Tamelen’s son, Peter, lives in Corvallis, Wash. He lives in Corvallis, Ore. —

Van Tamelen liked being different and he liked being first, colleagues said, and the problems he worked on had to be big ones, typically involving molecules much more complex than anyone had been able to make before.

While he was a graduate student at Harvard University working in the laboratory of chemist Gilbert Stork, Van Tamelen played a key role in the total synthesis of cantharidin, the central ingredient of the notorious aphrodisiac Spanish Fly. That work is considered the first synthesis of a complex natural product in which the correct three-dimensional configuration of each atom was achieved.

His later work included the first syntheses of the hallucinogenic alkaloid yohimbine and the antimitotic agent colchicine, which blocks the replication of cells by interfering with mitosis, the process in which chromosomes are separated to form new cells.

Nobel laureate K. Barry Sharpless of the Scripps Research Institute was a student in Van Tamelen’s lab and credits him with teaching him to always try to see problems through new eyes. “ ‘Sharpless!’ he’d say, ‘The only rule is there are no rules.’ ”

Van Tamelen lectured all over the globe and received numerous awards. In 1967, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands appointed him as University of Groningen Professor Extraordinarious. He was named one of the 2,000 best scientists of the 20th century by the International Biographical Centre of Cambridge, England, and received virtually all of the top awards presented by the American Chemical Society.

Eugene Earle van Tamelen was born July 20, 1925, in Zeeland, Mich. His forebears were woodworkers, and he frequently said that he got his gift for spatial thinking -- crucial in synthesizing natural products -- from them. He had originally wanted to design automobiles, but when he encountered organic chemistry at Hope College, his path was set.

He graduated from Hope in 1947 and received his doctorate from Harvard in 1950. He joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin and stayed until he went to Stanford in 1962, spending the rest of his career there.

He retained his interest in cars, eventually driving an Excalibur and then a Rolls-Royce and becoming a member of the Rolls-Royce Owners Club.

He also had a great interest in architecture and, while they were in Wisconsin, he and his wife Mary purchased one of the first prefab homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Erdman Prefabs. Van Tamelen also designed and built a vacation home in Pajaro Dunes near Watsonville and an open-air house on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.

Van Tamelen, who lived in Los Altos Hills, Calif., is survived by his wife of 41 years, the former Mary Houtman; two daughters, Jane of Venice and Carey Haughy of Columbia, Calif.; a son, Peter, of Corvallis, Wash.; and five grandchildren.