Brown, Herbert Charles (1912-2004) | Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections
Herbert Charles Brown was born on May 22, 1912 in London, England. His parents, Charles Brovarnik and Pearl Gorinstein, were Jewish immigrants to the United Kingdom from their birthplace in Zhitomir in the Ukraine. The second of four children, Herbert was born in 1912. Two years after Herbert’s birth his father moved their family to the United States to join his family in Chicago, while most of his mother’s family remained in the UK. The family adopted the grandfather’s anglicized name, Brown.
Herbert C. Brown’s father, a highly skilled cabinet maker, found few opportunities for that level of woodwork and started doing regular carpentry. The events of the Depression led to his father’s decision to open a small hardware store in South Chicago. The Browns lived above the family store and Herbert began his education, advancing quickly in a predominantly black school until graduation in 1924, at age 12. He then entered Englewood High School on Chicago’s south side.
Two years into high school, in 1926, Herbert’s father died and Herbert left school at age 14 to work in the family store. In 1929, his mother took over business responsibilities and sent Herbert back to high school where he progressed again toward graduation. He wrote the school’s humor column, winning a national prize. A year later, Herbert graduated from Englewood and the family sold the hardware store. At the beginning of the Depression years, he worked odd jobs.
In 1933, Herbert decided to enroll in Crane Junior College to major in electrical engineering. After taking some chemistry classes, he changed his major to chemistry. After he completed his first semester, the school closed its doors when the institution’s funding was depleted. He became a part-time shoe clerk and attended night school part-time at the Lewis Institute.
Dr. Nicholas Cheronis, one of Brown’s instructors at Crane, opened his laboratory to several students for self study. While working there, Brown met and grew to know Sarah Baylen, who would later become his wife. Wright Junior College opened in 1934 and Herbert and Sarah enrolled, graduating a year later in 1935 as the school’s first graduating class. Sarah wrote a message to Herbert in his yearbook predicting that he would one day be a Nobel Laureate.
Herbert competed for and won a scholarship to the University of Chicago and enrolled in 1935, along with Sarah. University policies allowed Herbert to enroll in unlimited courses for one tuition fee and he graduated one year later, in 1936, with a B.S. in Chemistry. He had completed two years of college in three quarters. Encouraged by a famous organic chemist, Julius Stieglitz, to pursue graduate school, Herbert and Sarah discussed delaying their plans to marry and he enrolled in graduate school. They married on February 6, 1937, and Sarah took a position at Billings Hospital in Medical Chemistry to supplement Herbert’s meager graduate funds. They had one son, Charles, who later became a chemist. He received his PhD. in Chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1938.
Brown’s academic career began when, unable to obtain an industrial position, he was instead offered a postdoctoral fellowship by Professor Morris Kharasch at the University of Chicago. The following year he became staff and personal assistant under Professor H.I. Schlesinger, where he worked for two years. He then accepted a position at Wayne State University as an assistant professor in 1943, moving up the ranks to associate by 1946. In 1947, he accepted an appointment as Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Purdue University. Twelve years later, in 1959, Brown was named Richard B. Wetherill Distinguished Professor at Purdue; a year later, in 1960, he was named Richard B. Wetherill Research Professor, a title he held until becoming a Professor Emeritus in 1978. Following his retirement, Brown remained at Purdue, working with postdoctoral students.
Herbert credits his wife and college sweetheart, Sarah Baylen, for his interest and work in borane chemistry, for which he was awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize. She had given him a book in 1938 when they graduated on the Hydrides of Boron and Silicon by Alfred Stock, which he then studied with Professor H.I. Schlesinger. In 1956, he discovered the hydroborane reaction that became the basis for his work in borane chemistry.
Brown’s professional work comprised research programs in the borane-organoborane area, the study of steric effects, the development of quantitative methods to determine steric strains, the examination of the chemical effects of steric strains, the non-classical ion problem, the basic properties of aromatic hydrocarbons, a quantitative theory of aromatic substitution, and the development of a set of electrophilic substitution constants, s<sup>+</sup>, which correlate aromatic substitution data and a wide variety of electrophilic reactions. He passed away Dec. 19, 2004 after suffering a heart attack.
For further reading:
Brown, Herbert C. Herbert C. Brown: A Life in Chemistry. West Lafayette, Ind. : Department of Chemistry, Purdue University, 1980.
Brown, Herbert C. Herbert C. Brown. [Philadelphia, Pa.] : Chemical Heritage Foundation, [1996?].