Turro Nicholas J.

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Prepared by Dr. Jeffrey Lancaster


1 Personal life

Nicholas J. Turro was born in Middletown, CT. in 1938, and passed away on November 24, 2012 following a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. He was married to his wife Sandra for 52 years with whom he had two daughters.[1]

2 Education and academic positions[2]

Turro received a B.A. in Chemistry from Wesleyan (CT) University in 1960. He then earned his Ph.D. in Organic Photochemistry under George S. Hammond at the California Institute of Technology in 1963 and was an NSF Post-Doctoral Fellow in Physical Organic Chemistry with Paul Bartlett at Harvard University from 1963-1964.

Nicholas J. Turro was the William P. Schweitzer Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University where he taught from 1964 until 2012. He also held professorships in the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering (full list of appointments below). He sponsored the Ph.D. thesis of over 70 students and mentored over 200 post-docs. Over 100 undergraduates were trained in research under his supervision.

Additionally, Turro was heavily involved in the development of information technologies for the teaching of science since the early 1990s. At Columbia University he organized a "Faculty-Student Information Technology Cluster" which provided resources for faculty in the sciences to develop IT tools for use in their courses. After a three year period, the activities of the "Cluster" were taken over by the University through the establishment of a Center for New Media for Teaching and Learning (now the Center for Teaching and Learning).

Appointments: (all at Columbia University)

  • Co-Chairman of Chemical Engineering, 1997-2000
  • Chairman, Chemistry Department, 1981-83
  • Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering, 1998-2012
  • Professor of Chemical Engineering, 1997-2012
  • Wm. P. Schweitzer Professor of Chemistry, 1981-2012
  • Professor of Chemistry, 1969-81
  • Associate Professor of Chemistry, 1967-69
  • Assistant Professor of Chemistry. 1965-67
  • Instructor of Chemistry, 1964-65

Turro was widely recognized as a leader and pioneer in the areas of supramolecular chemistry, organic photochemistry, molecular spectroscopy, host-guest chemistry and magnetic effects on photochemical reactions. He was the author of two textbooks on organic photochemistry - Modern Molecular Photochemistry of Organic Molecules and Principles of Molecular Photochemistry - which have been considered the “bible” of the field for several generations by organic photochemists since 1965. He published over 1000 research papers and was selected as one of the most highly cited chemists for the past two decades.

3 Research, major works and contributions[2]

Turro recognized that photons are both a reagent (photon absorption) for initiating photoreactions and a product (photon emission) which allows molecules to be imaged in space and time. Photons as reagents possess some outstanding properties, e.g., they may be used to selectively excite specific groups of atoms in a single molecule or a specific molecule in a mixture, because the light absorption depends on definite and unique electron energy gaps. This selectivity of photon absorption may be controlled and varied at will by use of lasers or by a monochrometer. The concentration of photons may be varied at will by controlling the light intensity. Photons can even be made optically active by the use of circularly polarized light. Finally, by use of lasers that can produce short pulses of light, high concentrations of photons can be injected into a system to trigger reactions in times as short as a trillionth of a second (a picosecond).


Turro studied the structure and dynamics of a range of reactive intermediates such as carbenes, singlet oxygen, radicals, radical pairs, and biradicals; these species are produced by photochemical excitation. Their chemistry is investigated directly by a range of time-resolved techniques and then characterized in real time by UV-VIS, IR, ESR or NMR analysis.

Additional lines of Turro’s research include the use of photoemission to track mRNA molecules in living cells with “molecules beacons” which are specifically designed to “light up” when they hybridize with their complementary strand on the mRNA; an investigation of the mechanism of reversible oxidation of carbon nanotubes; the stereoselective addition of singlet oxygen to double bonds; the characterization of the surface of nanocrystals; and the mechanism of paramagnetic interconversion of electron and spin paired systems.

The research of students in Turro’s group was strongly interdisciplinary and collaborative. Typically, a student would work together and actively with other research groups in the Chemistry Department, other departments at Columbia University, or even departments in other universities. This approach familiarized students with the advantages of teamwork in research, and allowed students to be exposed to a range of intellectual and scientific methods to solve scientific problems while engaging in projects ranging from materials science, to environmental science, to chemical biology.

Special editions of Photochemistry & Photobiological Sciences[3], Photochemistry and Photobiology[4], and Chem. Soc. Rev.[5] were dedicated to the memory of Nicholas J. Turro, and editorials honoring Turro’s work were published in Photochemistry & Photobiological Sciences[6], Photochemistry and Photobiology[7], and Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology A[8].

4 List of major contributions and awards[2]

  • 2011 - Arthur C. Cope award in Organic Chemistry for 2011. The award is given annually "to recognize outstanding achievement in the field of organic chemistry, the significance of which has become apparent within the five years preceding the year in which the award will be considered.”,
  • 2009 - Member of the inaugural class of ACS Fellows for excellence in chemistry and service to society,
  • 2008 - Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences publishes an issue dedicated to Prof. Turro's accomplishments (Photochem. Photobiol. Sci., 2008, 7), including an article by V. Ramamurthy's, "Turro the researcher, mentor and teacher" (Photochem. Photobiol. Sci., 2008, 7, 1441-1443),
  • 2007 - 100th Nichols Medal from the New York branch of the ACS at a Symposium on March 16, 2007,
  • 2005 - Theodor Förster Award from the German Chemical Society
  • 2004 - Honorary Degree from the University of Fribourg
  • 2004 - Mayor's Medal for Excellence in Science and Technology
  • 2004 - American Chemical Society's Pimentel Award in Chemical Education
  • 2003 - Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Columbia University
  • 2002 - NSF Director’s Distinguished Scholar Research Award
  • 1999 - Willard Gibbs Medal, Chicago Section, American Chemical Society
  • 1999 - Colloids and Surfaces Award, American Chemical Society
  • 1998 - Strahlenchemie Preis, Max-Planck-Institute, Mülheim, Germany
  • 1996 - Caltech Distinguished Alumnus Award
  • 1994 - Havinga Medal, Leiden University, The Netherlands
  • 1994 - Porter Medal Award, Japan, Europe and Inter-American Photochemical Societies
  • 1991 - Inter-American Photochemical Award in Photochemistry
  • 1987 - James Flack Norris Award, Northeastern Section of American Chemistry Society
  • 1986 - Harrison Howe Award, Rochester, NY Section of Amer. Chemical Society
  • 1986 - Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, American Chemical Society
  • 1984 - D.Sc. Honorary Degree, Wesleyan University
  • 1983 - Ernest O. Lawrence Memorial Award, U.S. Department of Energy
  • 1981 - Elected Member American Academy of Arts & Sciences
  • 1981 - Elected Member National Academy of Sciences
  • 1974 - Pure Chemistry Award, American Chemical Society
  • 1973 - National Fresenius Award, Phi Lambda Upsilon

5 References

[1] “Nicholas J. Turro Obituary” in The New York Times, Nov. 26, 2012, http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?n=nicholas-j-turro&pid=16126136.

[2] Adapted from: “Turro Home Page” accessed Apr. 23, 2017, http://turroserver.chem.columbia.edu (archived version: https://web.archive.org/web/*/http://turroserver.chem.columbia.edu).

[3] Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences 13 (2014): 125-466, http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Journals/JournalIssues/pp#!issueid=pp013002.

[4] Photochemistry and Photobiology 90 (2014): 253-477, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/php.2014.90.issue-2.

[5] Chem. Soc. Rev. 43 (2014): 3995-4050, http://dx.doi.org/10.1039/C4CS90045F.

[6] “The Turro legacy”. Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences 13 (2014): 138-140, http://dx.doi.org/10.1039/C4PP00008K.

[7] “Nicholas J. Turro, 1938–2012”. Photochem. Photobiol. 90 (2014): 254–256, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/php.12221.

[8] Sivaguru Jayaraman, “A tribute to Nicholas J. Turro—An icon of modern molecular photochemistry”. Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology A: Chemistry 271 (2013): 130-131, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jphotochem.2013.09.006.