Peter Beak

January 12, 1936 – February 21, 2021

Peter Beak

Born in Syracuse, NY on January 12, 1936, Beak received a B.A. degree from Harvard University in 1957 and a Ph.D. from Iowa State University in 1961 under the direction of Professor Ernest Wenkert. That same year, Beak was hired as an Instructor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rising to Professor of Chemistry in 1970. Before retirement in 2008, Beak held numerous positions including Jubilee Professor (LAS), Roger Adams Professor (Chemistry), James R. Eiszner Chair (Chemistry) and Professor in the Center for Advanced Study (UIUC). Among the many accolades he received for research, teaching and service, the most notable include election to the National Academy of Sciences (2003) membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2004) and the Paul G. Gassman Award from the American Chemical Society (2000). Peter served on Board of Editors of Organic Reactions from 1988-1997 and on the Board of Directors from 1998-2004. He was also a founding Associate Editor of Organic Letters from 1999-2003.

Over an illustrious career that spanned nearly five decades Beak was recognized as a leader in the fields of physical organic and synthetic organic chemistry. His work was characterized by sustained excellence, creative insight, intelligent analyses, and a keen sense of practicality and impact. Peter’s defining characteristic was his enduring dedication to the training and education of his coworkers. With characteristic modesty, Peter would always identify his most important contributions as the accomplishments of his current and former students. His was a difficult-to-emulate example, but one that all who knew him aspired to.

His early work on protomeric and alkylomeric equilibria related to the way in which carbon-hydrogen and carbon-carbon bonds are formed and broken, particularly in heterocyclic systems. Through elegant gas phase and solution studies, he showed that these reactions were dramatically dependent on the molecular environment, and he devised a phenomenological theory that rationalized these effects. This work fundamentally changed the way chemists think about chemical equilibria, one of the most important concepts in chemistry.

In work of fundamental significance in reaction mechanisms, Beak developed an insightful and general method to determine reaction trajectories at non-stereogenic atoms called the “endocyclic restriction test.” The work entailed the combination of brilliant experimental design, sophisticated interpretation of reaction products, and the application of demanding synthetic methods to generate the substrates.

Beak had an enduring interest in the chemistry of carbanions, organic compounds in which one carbon center formally carries a negative charge and is associated with a metal ion, usually lithium. The advent of functional organolithium chemistry in the 1970’s led to a revolution in the analysis and implementation of carbon-carbon bond formation in organic synthesis which simplified molecule building. Among the most notable contributions was his development of efficient methods for enantioselective synthesis through the use of chiral amines as asymmetric modifiers. Beak’s asymmetric organolithium-based methods and the variants they inspired enabled the production of many important chiral therapeutic agents. They also helped respond to the call for drug candidates that are rich in Csp3 stereogenic centers, to expand the types of biological functions that can be achieved with small molecule-based therapeutics. Beak is recognized not only as one of the pioneers of this important field, but also as one of the most influential practitioners. Through his keen insights and guided by his sense for novelty, he invented new strategies and reactions for synthesizing organic compounds through the agency of these highly reactive species. As important as his contributions to synthetic methodology are, what distinguished Beak from his peers was his interest in and unparalleled ability to understand the fundamental structure-reactivity and mechanistic underpinnings of these fascinating processes.

Perhaps Peter Beak’s most lasting and influential legacy is his unwavering conviction that students should be empowered as active participants in their own education and in the intellectual ecosystem of the department. This vision became manifest in two unique and longstanding activities in the organic chemistry area, namely the annual Beak-Pines Allerton Conference and the biennial Senter Symposium on Frontiers in Organic Chemistry. Beak developed the idea for the Allerton Conference in 1986 with the idea of encouraging graduate students to take the leadership in running a scientific retreat for the entire organic chemistry area. The students chair and organize the conference, give the presentations, participate in the discussions and provide guidance to their successors. Although originally sponsored by gifts from Monsanto and Merck, a very generous gift from Peter and Sandy Beak in 2012 has provided a sustainable income stream to support the conference indefinitely into the future.

Similarly, the biennial Senter Symposium springs from the Beak philosophy of graduate education – enable the students to become the masters of their own professional development. By engaging the graduate student body in the planning, organization and execution of a full day symposium, they become stakeholders in their own education. Moreover, they have the opportunity to compose a program of speakers of their own choosing and have the pleasure of interacting with them on a personal as well as professional basis; excellent training for networking and building confidence. This symposium has been active since 1990 with sponsorship from many sources including Monsanto, Janssen, and alumnus Peter Senter.

Even more than his multidimensional contributions to chemistry, Peter Beak is remembered as the quintessential role model for collegiality and mentorship. His dedication to the notion of colleagues as partners and to the education and professional development of his students is legendary as is evident in the heartfelt testimonials that followed his death.

Peter is survived by his wife of 61 years, Sandra Beak. Peter and Sandra met at age 14, married in 1959, and went on to spend a wonderful life together. They had two children who also survive, Bryan Beak, and Stacey Beatty along with four grandchildren.

Peter was an avid and accomplished skier for most of his life, and his family will spread his ashes on a much-loved helicopter skiing run in the Kootenay Mountains in British Columbia, Canada.

Scott E. Denmark
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign