Robert H. Grubbs, 79, Dies; Chemistry Breakthrough Led to a Nobel

Enrolling at the University of Florida, he majored in agricultural chemistry, combining his interest in science, developed in junior high school, and his boyhood passion for farming.

One summer, while working in an animal nutrition laboratory analyzing steer feces, he was invited by a friend to work in an organic chemistry laboratory being run by a new university faculty member, Merle Battiste. Around that time, Dr. Grubbs became absorbed in a book called “Mechanisms and Structure in Organic Chemistry,” by E.S. Gould, which explained how chemical reactions work. His lab experience and the book persuaded him to devote himself to chemistry, he said.

It was a lecture at the university by Rowland Pettit, an Australian chemist, that inspired Dr. Grubbs to begin looking into the use of metals in organic chemistry, exploratory work that would lead to the Nobel.

After earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Florida, he moved to Columbia University in New York for his doctoral degree, working under Ronald Breslow. Dr. Battiste had been Dr. Breslow’s first Ph.D. student. While at Columbia, Dr. Grubbs met and married Helen O’Kane, who is a speech-language pathologist from Brooklyn.

He obtained his Ph.D. in 1968 and then worked for a year at Stanford University as a National Institutes of Health fellow. In 1969, he joined the faculty of Michigan State University and worked there until 1978. During that time he started his research on catalysts in metathesis.

Dr. Grubbs was hired by the California Institute of Technology in 1978 and worked there until his death, advising and mentoring more than 100 Ph.D. candidates and almost 200 postdoctoral associates over they years.

In 1998, he and a chemistry postdoctoral fellow, Mike Giardello, founded Materia, a Pasadena-based technology company that has the exclusive rights to manufacture Dr. Grubbs’s catalysts. The business was sold in 2017 to Umicore and then to ExxonMobil this year.

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