David Y. Curtin

1920 – 2011

Virgil Boekelheide

David Yarrow Curtin was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on August 22, 1920, the eldest of the three sons of Margaretta Cope Curtin and Ellsworth Ferris Curtin. As both his parents had done, he attended Swarthmore College and received his A.B. degree in 1943. He carried out his graduate work under Charles C. Price at the University of Illinois where he obtained his Ph.D. degree in 1945.

His graduate work was focused on the synthesis and chemistry of heterocyclic compounds, including pyrimidines, quinazolines, and benzimidazoles. Some of this work was with Nelson J. Leonard and related to the ongoing antimalarial research program (with C. C. Price and H. R. Snyder) on the synthesis and production of chloroquine in time for its use in the Pacific. This early period in Urbana was also marked by a lifelong interest in music. Indeed, as a graduate student, Curtin could frequently be heard playing the flute in the organic laboratory on the second floor of Noyes on Sunday mornings. After his graduation, he carried out a year of postdoctoral work at Harvard University with Louis Fieser.

In 1946 he joined the Columbia University faculty as an instructor, where he remained for the next five years. Near the end of his stay at Columbia he formulated what ultimately became known as the Curtin-Hammett Principle, an extremely important principle that could be applied to a broad set of chemical reactions. Because he believed that Louis P. Hammett played a key role in his work, he generously gave credit to Hammett who, in turn, noted that “Because Curtin is very generous in attributing credit, this is sometimes referred to as the Curtin-Hammett Principle [rather than] the Curtin Principle.”1 The principle continues to be learned by scores of organic graduate students each year and is regularly used by researchers when analyzing certain types of reaction schemes.

In 1951 Curtin returned to join the University of Illinois faculty where he remained for the duration of his career. His research involved the mechanistic study of a wide range of chemical reactions including additions, eliminations, and rearrangements. Stereochemistry was often employed as a tool to understand the details of the mechanism.

Curtin was known as a pioneer whose work was often well ahead of its time. For example, in the mid 1960’s he turned his attention to solid-state organic chemistry and the correlation of chemical reactivity in the solid state with crystal structure. In particular, he sought out examples where the reaction involved color change, allowing the direction of the process to be monitored and explained in terms of the molecular packing. He continued working in this area until his retirement in 1988. For the next 18 years he was a regular fixture in the Department, attending daily coffee breaks and working in his office. His colleagues knew him as a true gentleman. Despite his many accomplishments, he was unpretentious and treated others with the utmost kindness and respect. In 2006, Dave and Connie Curtin moved to Florida where he remained until his death.

Curtin published close to 200 journal articles, supervised 72 Ph.D. dissertations at the University of Illinois, and together with his colleagues, including Reynold Fuson and Ralph Shriner, was a coauthor of the seventh edition of the very popular textbook entitled “The Systematic Identification of Organic Compounds.” He served as an editor of Organic Reactions for Volumes 8-13 (1954-1963). Curtin was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1964.

Curtin married Constance Belwyn O’Hara on July 1, 1950. He and Connie were married for more than six decades. He is survived by his wife, one brother, Richard, a son, David, and two daughters, Susan and Jane.

P. Beak
I. Paul
S. C. Zimmerman

1 Seeman, J. I. “Effect of Conformational Change on Reactivity in Organic Chemistry. Evaluations, Applications, and Extensions of Curtin-Hammett/Winstein-Holness Kinetics,” Chem. Rev. 1983, 83, 83-133. (link)