Basolo, Fred, 1920-2007
- Existence: 1920 - 2007
Chemist Fred Basolo came from modest surroundings. He was born in 1920 to Italian immigrant parents in Coello (registered as North Town in Jackson County, Illinois, but later changed to Coello by the town to commemorate the first postmaster). The small mining town in southern Illinois was almost exclusively home to other immigrant families from the Piemonte region of Italy, and thus Basolo spoke a rare dialect of Italian, “piemontese,” before he really spoke English. Most of the community was uneducated coal miners, and Basolo was the only one for generations who went to college (and is still the only former Coello resident to hold a PhD).
When the Great Depression of the 1930s crippled the country, Basolo was not old enough to work and was afforded the luxury of primary education; his older brother and sister, being nearly a decade older, were forced into labor to help the family make ends meet. Basolo's early education was not remarkable: the school had four rooms with two classes in each room and one teacher for each room. As the economy began to even out, Basolo graduated from grade school and was able to attend the community high school in nearby Christopher, Illinois. Like most early twentieth century rural school districts, Basolo was forced to walk a mile through several fields to nearby Christopher, Illinois, due to a lack of busing. That aside, while in high school, Basolo was introduced to chemistry by the most unlikely of sources. A first year teacher with her degree in home economics was the only person capable enough to teach chemistry classes, despite hating the discipline and refusing to teach outside the book. She did concede to opening the lab early Saturday and promising to attend to any injuries. Basolo was then allowed free reign to experiment how he wanted, which he attributes as a key moment in his life in Chemistry. He also notes that spending Saturdays with a young, blond and attractive teacher did not hinder him in anyway.
From there he went to Southern Illinois Normal school (later Southern Illinois University). Because his family was so poor, he worked several odd jobs, some of which provided by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's WPA program, and often more than one at a time. At SIN, Basolo studied with the famous chemists Jim W. Neckers and Ken van Lente - it was off the advice of Neckers that Basolo would go on to graduate school, rather than return to Christopher to teach high school chemistry. Also, while working in the health lab performing blood and urine tests, Basolo met Mary Nutley, the woman he would marry. After four years, he graduated with a B.Ed. in chemistry and math, and following Necker's advice, applied to University of Illinois, at Urbana-Champaign.
UIUC boasted a much larger faculty than SIN, many of whom were famous within their field - including John C. Bailar in inorganic chemistry. The heavily awarded Bailar was, at his roots, an organic chemist, but did his work primarily in inorganic chemistry. He is often attributed as being the “father of coordination chemistry” here in the U.S. Under Bailar, Basolo did his graduate work on platinum complexes. When World War II started, Bailar pushed many of the graduate students through their degrees so that they might finish and help the war cause. In 1943, Basolo graduated with a PhD in chemistry after only three years of study.
Looking to help the war cause as best he could, Basolo interviewed with the University of Chicago, to work on the classified Manhattan Project, and also with Rohm-Haas Company in Philadelphia, and their classified work with Zirconium. While at Rohm-Haas, Basolo did work on Zirconium and mica substitutes, and played for the R-H city league baseball teams. Because his contribution to the war efforts was not large, Basolo questioned in his autobiography whether staying in Philadelphia was the best choice, rather than shipping over seas to join the fighting.
While working in Philadelphia, he would visit Mary Nutley from his undergraduate days at SIN. By 1946 they were engaged, the war was ending and Basolo had taken a job at Northwestern University. They were married on June 14, 1947.
In 1946, Basolo joined the Northwestern University faculty in the chemistry department, sharing an office and apartment with Bernard H. Adelson, who would later go on to the Northwestern School of Medicine, garnering many awards and treating Basolo as his general physician for the remainder of Basolo's life. Basolo's tenure at NU was marked by achievement. He was a highly regarded faculty member and educator, served as chair of the chemistry department from 1969 through 1972 and chaired the Intercollegiate Athletic Committee from 1976 to 1977, was named the Charles and Emma Morrison Chair in the department of chemistry in 1980, and ended his career as an Emeritus Professor in 1990, though still coming to the office every morning there after to help out as best he could. Basolo's correspondence files indicate a good relationship between faculty members, including Ralph G. Pearson, James Ibers and Tobin Marks - three other acclaimed chemists - and University Administration. During his career, his teaching was highly regarded by students; many would send letters later in life reminiscing about how much they enjoyed his lectures (particularly on the history of coordination chemistry, especially Alfred Werner and Sophus Jørgensen). As a graduate advisor, several of his PhD students would go on to accomplish great things in academia and industrial chemistry, such as Harry Gray, Andrew Wojcicki, and Earl Muetterties. Many of these same graduate students would return to NU to visit or seek Basolo's advice. Basolo's teaching and lectures were so lauded that he was named a NATO Distinguished Professor in 1969, won the James Flack Norris award for Outstanding Achievement in Teaching of Chemistry in 1981, the ACS George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education in 1992, and was asked to give dozens of guest lectures across five of the seven continents. Probably the greatest signifier of his teaching ability was the “Basolo 70” symposium, which celebrated the concurrent achievements of turning 70 and being named emeritus. The symposium was attended by 200 former students, colleagues and friends, several from foreign countries. A collection of cards and letters can be found in the biographical section of this collection. Unfortunately, the Archive's collection is lacking most of his teaching materials as he donated them to colleagues around the time he was named emeritus and his teaching load was diminished.
Aside from his teaching responsibility, Basolo operated a successful lab and research group. Many of his graduate students published findings of experiments run while under his tutelage. Basolo also hired dozens of post-doctorates to help around his lab. In his correspondence files, there are several folders for the post-graduate research assistants, many of whom are from foreign countries. The majority of Basolo's own publications stem from research done while running the lab.
Basolo's work in chemistry also extended beyond NU. Basolo belonged to several professional organizations tied to chemistry, most notably the American Chemical Society (the largest scientific society in the world) and the National Academy of Sciences. Basolo regularly attended and presented at meetings, sat on committees (ranging from periodic table nomenclature committees to task forces charged with studying the general chemistry curriculum, to award committees) and even co-founded the Gordon Research Conferences in Inorganic Chemistry (which the Chemical Heritage Society published a book about). Basolo sat on the editorial board for nearly every major chemistry publication devoted to inorganic chemistry, including some foreign language publications. Internationally, his ability as a chemist gained enough recognition for him to join several foreign chemical societies (two in his native homeland, Italy) and helped to forge a scientific community between the United States and the People's Republic of China. He was a fellow of the Japanese Society for Promotion of Science, touring and giving lectures in 1979, and NATO Senior Scientist in Italy in 1981, and a Humboldt Senior Scientist in Germany.
One of his greatest accomplishments was his election to presidency of the ACS. After serving as the chair of the inorganic division in 1970 and serving the division's executive board in 1971, and despite initially not declaring himself in the race, Basolo ran as a petition candidate and won by an overwhelming majority. Between 1982 and 1984, Basolo was president and made education the theme of his term. He worked to close the gap between high school and college curriculums, to rework the national curriculum, and raise awareness of chemical education throughout the nation. For the society, he took the bold, and unpopular, initiative to reduce the number of national meetings and committees. Basolo tried to implement regulations that would allow new chemist to hold positions and committee chairs, and that would increase the overall membership. Though he was largely unsuccessful at untrenching the stalwart chemists, he made a stance that other presidents would try to follow. As the face of the ACS, Basolo often met with several high ranking members of the American political system, including President and Mrs. Reagan. When President Reagan's scientific advisory board was formed, Basolo made sure that chemist were well represented. Basolo also spearheaded a campaign to have the term “chemical people” removed from a PBS special Mrs. Reagan was running on drug use. Though most of his large scale changes were met with resistance and eventually defeated, Basolo's time in office saw membership raise and the beginnings of change.
Aside from his excellent teaching record and extensive service to the chemical community, Basolo's impact on chemistry is most tangible in his more than 380 publications. Beside a multitude of articles co-authored by colleagues, research assistants and graduate students, Basolo also co-authored Mechanisms of Inorganic Reactions, with Ralph G. Pearson and Coordination Chemistry with R.C. Johnson. Both books have been extensively translated with Coordination Chemistry being translated into eight languages alone. Coordination Chemistry, a first year text book, had two editions - 1964 and 1984 - and was widely used in introductory chemistry courses for many years. In 2003, John Burmeister and Basolo edited a collection of his published articles for volume 13 in a series on well known chemist titled, On Being Well-Coordinated: A Half Century of Research. Outside of scientific publications, Basolo has been extensively interviewed, the most notable of which was published by The Chemical Heritage Foundation, as well as having written several articles on issues pertaining to education, chemistry's reputation, and chemistry's impact on society. Basolo's published research garnered him several notable honors including several fellowships and grants for the National Science Foundation, the ACS Award for Research in Inorganic Chemistry, the first Bailar Medal, Southern Illinois Alumni Achievement Award, the ACS Award for Distinguished Service in Inorganic Chemistry, Italian Chemical Society Award for Research in Inorganic Chemistry, the Harry and Carol Mosher Award, the Padova University Medal, the Chinese Chemical Society Medal, the Chemical Pioneer Award, the American Institute of Chemist Gold Medal, the Willard Gibbs Medal, the SIU Obelisk Leadership Award, and the Priestly Medal (The American Chemical Societies highest honor).
Until health concerns kept him from coming to campus, Basolo was a loyal member of Northwestern's faculty. Despite several competing offers, Basolo only considered leaving once when Texas Christian University offered him the Robert A. Welch chair in chemistry. At the last minute, NU offered him a comparable package and he gladly accepted. Northwestern University was important to Basolo: he spent his whole career here, donated thousands of dollars to the University, and was an avid football fan, often closing many of his letters with remarks about how NU's team was going to beat whatever school with which he was corresponding. Over the course of his life, Basolo amassed a considerable number of contacts, many of who he kept in touch with until his last days here, often times refusing the ease of email for a typed or hand written letter. Among his individual contacts one will find several prominent chemists including some Nobel Prize winners (namely Henry Taube, Richard Ernst and E.O. Fischer).
Basolo's wife, Mary, died in a car accident in 1997. Fred Basolo died on February 27, 2007 leaving behind four children: Mary Catherine, Fred Jr., Elizabeth and Margaret, and several grandchildren.
Basolo, Fred. From Coello to Inorganic Chemistry: a Lifetime of Reactions. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2002.