“I have always been guided by a desire to be a worthy son to the father I cannot remember and to the loving, courageous mother who raised me.” Elias’ wish began to be fulfilled all too early in life. Born William James Corey in Methuen, Mass. in July 1928 his mother renamed him Elias after his father who died when the young Corey was just 18 months old.
His Lebanese Christian grandparents migrated to the US and the extended family, including his aunt and uncle, lived together in a spacious house in Methuen. Corey says his aunt taught him to be efficient and to take pleasure in a job well done, no matter how mundane. A keen mathematician, in 1945 Corey entered MIT, where he soon became a convert to organic chemistry, with its “intrinsic beauty and great relevance to human health”. After graduation he joined John C. Sheehan’s program on synthetic penicillins. At 22 he joined the University of Illinois as an instructor in chemistry under Roger Adams and Carl S. Marvel. He began his work in physical organic chemistry, developing stereoelectronic ideas which are still used today. By 1954 he was an assistant professor, rising to professor of chemistry in 1956, aged 27. His research group grew and its activities included new areas of synthesis, metal complexes and enzyme chemistry.
In 1957, he received a Guggenheim fellowship and took sabbatical leave, divided between Harvard and Europe, dur- ing which he developed several key ideas about chemical synthesis. Working with Sune Bergström, he became intrigued by prostaglandins, which led in the mid 1960s to the first chemical syntheses of prostaglandins. In 1959 he received an offer of a professorship at Harvard (“the most gratifying of my professional honours”), where he worked with giants in the field of chemistry and expanded his work, particularly in areas of molecular synthesis. He developed several new synthetic reagents and contributed to the methodology of organic synthesis.
Several reactions are named after him, e.g., the Corey-Bakshi-Shibata system for the reduction of ketones to secondary alcohols. Corey has been praised as a father of modern organic synthesis. A press release after his Nobel award in 1990 said: “It is probable that no other chemist has developed such a comprehensive assortment of methods… in the synthesising laboratory.” He was awarded the American Chemical Society’s greatest honour, the Priestley Medal, in 2004. In 1961 he married Claire Higham, a graduate of the University of Illinois. They have three children.
This text of the Nobel Laureate was taken from the book: "NOBELS. Nobel Laureates photographed by Peter Badge" (WILEY-VCH, 2008).