Remembering Peter Beak, James R. Eiszner Chair of Chemistry Emeritus


By Scott Denmark, Reynold C. Fuson Professor of Chemistry

An internationally acclaimed organic chemist and UIUC professor for nearly 60 years, Peter Beak was an inspiration and role model for generations of faculty and students.

He died peacefully and comfortably from respiratory complications of heart disease on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021; he was 85 years old.

Catherine J. Murphy, head of the Department of Chemistry, said Prof. Beak's impact on organic chemistry is marked by his insightful analysis of complex reaction processes of synthetic significance, by his service to the profession, and by his enduring dedication to the training and education of his coworkers.

“With characteristic modesty, Peter would always identify his most important contributions as the accomplishments of his current and former students. His was a difficult-to-emulate example, but one that all who knew him aspired to,” she said.

Born in Syracuse, New York, on Jan. 12, 1936, Beak received a BA degree from Harvard University in 1957 and a PhD from Iowa State University in 1961 under the direction of Professor Ernest Wenkert. That same year, he joined the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois as an instructor and was promoted to Professor of Chemistry in 1970.

Over the next several decades, Prof. Beak made fundamental contributions to organic chemistry that included unifying concepts and new areas of investigation. He also served as research advisor for more than 100 graduate and postdoctoral students who have made significant independent contributions in their own fields.

Before his retirement in 2008, Prof. Beak held numerous positions including Jubilee Professor (LAS), Roger Adams Professor (Chemistry), James R. Eiszner Chair (Chemistry) and Professor in the Center for Advanced Study (UIUC). Among the many accolades he received for research, teaching and service, the most notable include election to the National Academy of Sciences (2003), membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2004) and the Paul G. Gassman Award from the American Chemical Society (2000). He also held editorships, lectureships, and leadership positions in professional organizations and lectured around the globe.

He and his wife, Sandy, have been supporters of the university since 1968 and the Department of Chemistry since 1977. In 2010, they established the Peter and Sandra Beak Chemistry Fund, which provides support for the annual Beak-Pines Organic Area Allerton Conference. This hallmark event is a highlight of the year for the organic area and would not be possible without Prof. and Mrs. Beak’s generous support.

Illinois chemistry Professor Scott Denmark, an organic chemistry colleague, said Prof. Beak “is remembered as a pillar of scholarship in the organic chemistry community and as a warm, compassionate human being and enviable role model.”

Over an illustrious career that spanned nearly five decades Beak was recognized as a leader in the fields of physical organic and synthetic organic chemistry, Denmark said.

“His work was characterized by sustained excellence, creative insight, intelligent analyses, and a keen sense of practicality and impact,” he said.

His early work on protomeric and alkylomeric equilibria related to the way in which carbon-hydrogen and carbon-carbon bonds are formed and broken, particularly in heterocyclic systems. Through elegant gas phase and solution studies, he showed that these reactions were dramatically dependent on the molecular environment, and he devised a phenomenological theory that rationalized these effects. This work fundamentally changed the way chemists think about chemical equilibria, one of the most important concepts in chemistry.

In work of fundamental significance in reaction mechanisms, Prof. Beak developed an insightful and general method to determine reaction trajectories at non-stereogenic atoms called the “endocyclic restriction test.” The work entailed the combination of brilliant experimental design, sophisticated interpretation of reaction products, and the application of demanding synthetic methods to generate the substrates.

Prof. Beak had an enduring interest in the chemistry of carbanions, organic compounds in which one carbon center formally carries a negative charge and is associated with a metal ion, usually lithium. The advent of functional organolithium chemistry in the 1970s led to a revolution in the analysis and implementation of carbon-carbon bond formation in organic synthesis which simplified molecule building.

Among the most notable contributions was his development of efficient methods for enantioselective synthesis through the use of chiral amines as asymmetric modifiers. His asymmetric organolithium-based methods and the variants they inspired enabled the production of many important chiral therapeutic agents. They also helped respond to the call for drug candidates that are rich in Csp3 stereogenic centers, to expand the types of biological functions that can be achieved with small molecule-based therapeutics.

Prof. Beak is recognized not only as one of the pioneers of this important field, but also as one of its most influential practitioners. Through his keen insights and guided by his sense for novelty, he invented new strategies and reactions for synthesizing organic compounds through the agency of these highly reactive species. As important as his contributions to synthetic methodology are, what distinguished Beak from his peers was his interest in and unparalleled ability to understand the fundamental structure-reactivity and mechanistic underpinnings of these fascinating processes.

Perhaps Peter Beak’s most lasting and influential legacy is his unwavering conviction that students should be empowered as active participants in their own education and in the intellectual ecosystem of the department. This vision became manifest in two unique and longstanding activities in the organic chemistry area, the annual Beak-Pines Allerton Conference and the biennial Senter Symposium on Frontiers in Organic Chemistry.

Beak developed the idea for the Allerton Conference in 1986 with the idea of encouraging graduate students to take the leadership in running a scientific retreat for the entire organic chemistry area. The students chair and organize the conference, give the presentations, participate in the discussions and provide guidance to their successors. Although originally sponsored by gifts from Monsanto and Merck, a very generous gift from Peter and Sandy Beak in 2012 has provided a sustainable income stream to support the conference indefinitely into the future.

Similarly, the biennial Senter Symposium springs from the Beak philosophy of graduate education – enable the students to become the masters of their own professional development. By engaging the graduate student body in the planning, organization and execution of a full day symposium, they become stakeholders in their own education. Moreover, they have the opportunity to compose a program of speakers of their own choosing and have the pleasure of interacting with them on a personal as well as professional basis; excellent training for networking and building confidence. This symposium has been active since 1990 with sponsorship from many sources including Monsanto, Janssen, and alumnus Dr. Peter Senter (PhD, ’81, Coates).

Even more than his multidimensional contributions to chemistry, Prof. Beak is remembered as the quintessential role model for collegiality and mentorship. His dedication to the notion of colleagues as partners and to the education and professional development of his students is legendary as is evident in the heartfelt testimonials that follow in this memorial.

Prof. Beak was once asked what area of his research was most satisfying. He never mentioned any of his significant contributions to chemistry.

“Clearly it was working with my students,” he said. “The opportunity to work and learn with and be part of their development has been a privilege.”

One of those students, Brock Siegel (PhD, '74, Beak), was at the center of the genetic engineering revolution for most of his career. He retired from corporate work in 2010 after a successful career in genomics, and in the last decade, has been helping biotech startups, with investing, advising, acquisition and serving on boards.

He said Prof. Beak is the mentor who has had the single greatest impact on him throughout his professional career.

“Always, you would encourage me to use all of the tools known or build new, not just what’s convenient, familiar or available. In essence, very forward thinking, no problems are unsolvable. Pure inspiration, critical thinking and underlying hard work!” Siegel said. “Your intrinsic drive and penetrating insights will always be with me. Thank you, Peter, for teaching me about inspiration, rigor, hard work and insights. You gave me the base I needed to keep going and build on.”

Siegel said he can easily recall many of Prof. Beak’s familiar sayings that were teaching moments themselves.

“ ‘We’re smart, we can figure this out!’; ‘The big ones just fall harder.’; ‘For some, a PhD will be the highpoint of their career, others will keep going.’; and, of course, ‘If we’re wrong on this one, we’ll both be pushing a broom!,’ ” Siegel recalled.

A photo of Peter Beak sitting next to his wife, Sandy Beak, with Alumnus Dr. Dekai Loo and his wife, JianJian, standing behind the Beaks at an event in Hong Kong in 2013.
Prof. Peter Beak (left, seated) and his wife, Sandy Beak (right, seated) are pictured along with De-Kai Loo (back, left) and his wife, Jianjian (far right), in 2013 in Hong Kong.

Peter Beak’s example inspired philanthropic activities that honor his commitment to nurturing students within and beyond his group. Dr. De-Kai Loo (PhD, ’87, Beak) and Dr. Jianjian Zhang (PhD, ’89, Schuster) established the Professor Peter Beak Graduate Travel Scholarship Fund which supports a travel award for graduate students in chemistry. In addition, Dr. Mike Garst (BS, ’69) created the Peter Beak Scholarship for Undergraduate Research Fund in 2015 which supports research opportunities for undergraduate students in chemistry.

A senior research scientist at Ashland Incorporated, Loo said what he admired most about Prof. Beak was his devotion to the teaching and research of chemistry.

“There were many occasions during my graduate study where his teaching, guidance, mentoring and support was invaluable,” Loo said. “His contribution to chemistry speaks for itself in the many awards and recognitions that he received during his career. And yet he remained one of the humblest people I know.”

Garst is now a founding member and Head of Chemical Sciences at Akrivista and Whitecap Biosciences, and he is also a partner at PharmaChem Associates LLC. In 1968, he was an undergraduate researcher for Prof. Beak. His senior year in the Beak lab convinced Garst to be a chemist rather than attend medical school.

“Later in my own career, I often thought about how I saw him working with graduate students individually or as a group to prepare them for their next step in their careers.  It is a behavior to emulate.  Peter exhibited exceptional caring and warmth which is rare in academic environments.  He gave thoughtful, encouraging advice, usually making me think differently about the situation.  Peter was my academic father,” Garst said.

Terry M. Balthazor (PhD, ’75, Martin) knew Professor Beak only by sight while a graduate student at Illinois but recalled one memorable moment when Professor Beak spotted him cutting a rusty old frozen lock from his bicycle outside Roger Adams Laboratory.

“In his best deadpan voice, Peter suggested I take up the inadequacy of my skimpy graduate stipend with Chairman Gutowsky rather than begin a life of crime. We laughed about that...later,” recalled Balthazor, who became good friends with Professor Beak after graduate school. Beak was a consultant at Monsanto for most of Balthazor’s 25-year career there.

“I think it is fair to say consultants were not uniformly welcomed. Not so with Peter. His time was always filled to capacity, because everyone knew their project would be on a better footing after being pressure tested by Peter. Those who met with him could go forward knowing the fundamental underpinnings of their project were sound or what needed shoring-up before proceeding or when to call an end to the endeavor. They too knew Peter was about their success,” Balthazor said.

He said he has lost an extraordinary colleague and a trusted, giving friend.

“My heart is broken but my gratitude for his company is beyond measure and the memory of my dear friend sustains and enriches me,” Balthazor said.

Gary Schuster, professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology, first met Prof. Beak more than 40 years ago when they both were members of the Illinois chemistry faculty.

“Professor Peter Beak was a scientist whose work is acclaimed throughout the world and a teacher who inspired generations of students to pursue their dreams. But to me, above all of that, Pete was a mentor and a friend who was an indispensable part of my life for more than 45 years,” he said. “But above all, I will remember a real gentleman who loved his family, who was dedicated to science and who selflessly gave to his students, colleagues and friends all that he possibly could.”

Even more than his multidimensional contributions to chemistry, Prof. Beak is remembered as the quintessential role model for collegiality and mentorship. His dedication to the notion of colleagues as partners and to the education and professional development of his students is legendary as is evident in this collection of heartfelt testimonials from faculty, former colleagues and alumni.

In lieu of other expressions of sympathy, donations can be made to the University of Illinois Foundation, specifying the Peter and Sandra Beak Chemistry Fund #775408.

Read the obituary story in Chemical and Engineering News, and his official obituary.

- Christen Mercier and Tracy Crane contributed to this memoriam.

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