Dietmar Seyferth, professor emeritus of chemistry, dies at 91

Categories: Faculty, MIT News

Inorganic chemist and MIT professor for over 40 years was “a bedrock of the organometallic community”.

Dietmar Seyferth, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and pioneer in the field of organometallic chemistry, died of complications from COVID-19 on Saturday, June 6. He was 91.

“Dietmar’s contributions to teaching, mentoring, and the field of organometallic chemistry comprise an enduring legacy to the world,” said Professor Troy Van Voorhis, head of the Department of Chemistry, upon learning of Seyferth’s passing. “He continues to be held in the highest regard and we will remember him fondly.”

Born on January 11, 1929 in Chemnitz, Germany, Seyferth emigrated to Buffalo, New York with his parents, Herbert and Elisabeth, in 1933. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Buffalo, graduating summa cum laude in 1951, and earned his PhD, under the supervision of Professor Eugene Rochow, from Harvard University in 1955. While a teaching assistant for a first-year chemistry laboratory, Seyferth met Helena McCoy, a Radcliffe student taking the course. Their closer acquaintance was delayed until the end of the term, but they eventually became engaged and were married on August 25, 1956, the beginning of a romance that would continue for the next 63 years.

Seyferth conducted postdoctoral studies at the Inorganic Chemistry Institute, Technische Hochschule, Munich, and Harvard University. He briefly worked for Dow Corning in Michigan before joining the MIT Department of Chemistry as an Assistant Professor in 1957.

Emeritus Professor Stephen J. Lippard had the distinct fortune of knowing Seyferth in two capacities: first as an “inspiring teacher”, when Lippard took Seyferth’s graduate course as a PhD student, then as a “valued colleague and good friend” when he, too, joined the Department of Chemistry faculty.

“[Dietmar] was a generous man, who readily offered his small violin to my son Alex when he began his lessons at an early age,” recalled Lippard. “His work as founding editor of Organometallics propelled it to the premier journal of its kind in the world. Together with Al Cotton he built the inorganic faculty at MIT through the hiring of young colleagues who brought exciting, complementary areas of research to the Chemistry Department, elevating it to arguably the best place in the world for students, postdocs, and visiting scientists to seek education, training, and excellent career opportunities in the various branches of the subdivision. Dietmar was a bon vivant whose presence could light up a room and whose loyal friendship, counsel, and wisdom will be sorely missed. He had a long and fruitful life, which brings comfort to those of us who mourn his passing.”

Emeritus Professor Frederick Greene first crossed paths with Seyferth when they were both graduate students at Harvard in the 1950s, though they really got to know one another once they joined the MIT Chemistry faculty. “I have had the opportunity to see his wonderful career in its entirety,” said Greene. “He certainly was a towering figure in organometallic chemistry, both in his research and in his work as editor of the major journal in that field…Let me simply call attention to his humanity, his decency, his respect for others and his sense of humor. Quite recently, in 2018, Dietmar and I have had several audio/video sessions with Professor Danheiser, exploring aspects of the MIT Chemistry Department in the years of the 1950’s to the mid 1970’s.  These have taken place at the home of Dietmar and Helena, and were made possible by Liz McGrath and Emrick Elias.   It was a real pleasure to be with Dietmar.  He is greatly missed.”

Seyferth’s research career ranged broadly in the area of organometallic chemistry, with an emphasis on the organic derivatives of the main group elements, particularly lithium, mercury, silicon, germanium, tin and phosphorus, as well as on studies in transition metalorganic chemistry with a focus on the chemistry of organocobalt cluster complexes and sulfur ligand containing iron carbonyls.

“Dietmar was a wonderful colleague who also was a brilliant and dedicated organometallic chemist,” said Professor Stephen L. Buchwald. “It was most fitting that he served as the first editor of the then new American Society journal, Organometallics. I can remember how happy I was the day that it was announced that he had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an honor that was very fitting.”

In addition to his work as editor for Organometallics, a position he held for 28 years, and membership to the National Academy of Sciences, Seyferth served as a Regional Editor of the Journal of Organometallic Chemistry and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as the German National Academy of Sciences. He received four national awards from the American Chemical Society, including the Award in Organometallic Chemistry. Seyferth officially retired and became an Emeritus Professor in 1999, though according to his wife, he “flunked” retirement and continued to write and teach, spending time in his office at MIT every day, for many more years.

Seyferth was an inspiration to his fellow faculty members as well as his students and members of his research group.  “Dietmar was a bedrock of the Organometallic community throughout his storied career,” said Professor Kit Cummins. “As Editor of Organometallics, Dietmar worked generously and tirelessly to aid authors from around the globe in improving their manuscripts and publications.  He ensured quick turnaround in the peer review process with notes to reviewers in his distinctive handwriting, typically delivered by Fax.   Because of Dietmar, I submitted my group’s first paper to Organometallics, taking advantage of proximity to hand deliver to him the required four copies.  Dietmar was wonderful with students, especially in the oral examinations where his use of the Socratic method proved most effective.  In the classroom and through his research, Dietmar popularized main-group element chemistry, a subfield that was in need of a staunch champion of Dietmar’s scientific stature in the US.  His ideas impacted greatly my own career directions, as a result, and I had the privilege of taking over teaching of the 5.05 subject when he retired from it. He was generous with junior faculty, myself included, dispensing scientific tips with deep insight and, often, humor.  He never tired of listening to me relate my group’s latest discoveries; he was a great listener who really listened.  For all of his professional accomplishments, Dietmar was also a dear personal friend to many of his colleagues. I am very grateful that one of Dietmar’s former students, Robert L. Lambert (PhD ’73), saw fit to endow the Seyferth Lecture as a permanent and enduring testament to the impact of Dietmar on Organometallic Chemistry.  This lectureship will keep Dietmar’s name and legacy alive in the social and scientific fabric of our Department.”

The inaugural Dietmar Seyferth Lecture in Organometallic Chemistry was held in April 2019. Lambert credits Seyferth for much of his self-discovery as a graduate student. “As is typical with many graduate students, Dietmar firmly caused me learn about myself to at least the same extent as chemistry through his pointed, but patient, expectations of meaningful results,” said Lambert. “Although the leash was very stretchable, a ‘starter, not finisher’ has to learn to finish, and his toleration and guidance toward a goal usually turned out to be gratifying for me. His communication skills were extraordinary – as a beginning 2nd year student I had been working for several weeks on a grant proposal, only to have him read it and then tell me to get a tablet and pencil: he dictated nearly 3 pages at a slow conversational speed.  I then became aware of the importance of precision and background knowledge in technical communication. In a certain sense he was overly fair.  With a variety of students from different experiences and knowledge in his group, he expected reasonable standards of technical performance, but would let us work toward the limits of our individual capabilities and interests on relevant ideas.  He set a strong example for challenging yourself to be observant about what you were doing and thoughtful about why you were doing it.”

“Dietmar Seyferth was truly a giant in the field of inorganic and organometallic chemistry,” said Professor Rick Danheiser. “His pioneering contributions in the chemistry of organolithium and organosilicon compounds were particularly significant and a number of methods used in organic synthesis have their roots in chemistry that was developed in the Seyferth laboratory.”

Among Seyferth’s greatest contributions was his dedication to his students and his commitment to keeping in touch with them long after they left the halls of MIT. “My strongest and fondest remembrance of Dietmar is that for many of the more than 50 years of our interactions, when I talked with him he could give me pretty detailed rundowns of every generation of his students, where each person was now, what they were doing, and little bits about their lives,” said Robert Damrauer (PhD ’68). “He was a very busy man, a very influential, fine scientist and editor, yet he took such pride in his students and their accomplishments. My wonderful friend, Michel Pereyre, was a postdoc from Bordeaux, when I was a grad student. Michel tells the story that Dietmar told him that he (Michel) was the best French postdoc that he (Dietmar) had ever had. Michel says it took him some time to realize he was the only French postdoc he had ever had.”

“I can truly say that the training I received under Dietmar’s mentorship, not just chemistry, but writing and administration, laid a sturdy foundation that allowed me to build a meaningful and satisfying career, first in industry and then for 33 years so far in academia,” said Joseph Merola (PhD ’78).

Gary Wiseman (PhD ’85), remembers Seyferth as a great friend and mentor. “When we first met, I was an enthusiastic but inexperienced and unproven 21 year old kid,” Wiseman recalls. “[Seyferth] gave me a chance on a brand new project (silazane ceramic precursors) and it changed my life and career forever. Dietmar provided close supervision in the beginning (daily instructions via the famous yellow sheets), building my confidence by enabling early success. But he steadily loosened the reins and allowed me the freedom to take risks and drive the project on my own into completely new directions. All of us who came through his group owe him not just for the technical education we received, but for the mentorship model he taught us and for his lasting contribution to our development as scientists, managers, parents and people.”

Shane Krska (PhD ’97), hails Seyferth as being “an example and inspiration of what it means to be a scientist and a scholar”. “When I think of Dietmar, I can hear his big, booming voice say, ‘So, what’s new?’ as he walks through the laboratory door on a Friday afternoon, accompanied by his infectious laugh and the sound of change jingling in his pocket,” remembers Krska. “I can picture the rows of cabinets in his office, filled with 3 x 5 index cards meticulously summarizing nearly every paper he had ever read, as we sit at his desk for hours going over a galley proof word by word to make sure there isn’t a single mistake.  Most of all, I remember how he shared his love for chemistry, expressed in mimeographed crystal structures of methyllithium, wickedly obscure cumulative exam questions and impossibly high standards for passing elemental analyses.”

Earle Marie Hanson (PhD ‘69) joined Seyferth’s research group in the fall of 1964, freshly graduated from Cornell University.  Though she was one of very few female chemistry graduate students at MIT, Hanson was one of three women in the Seyferth group, and he made them feel safe and accepted. She credits Seyferth – “a respected and well-published chemist” – with launching the members of his group into productive and successful careers. “Dietmar set high standards for our research and publications and kept our noses to the grindstone with his almost daily inquiry of ‘What’s New?’,” recalls Hanson. “It kept us focused on the daily as well as the longer-term course of our research and we tried to be prepared in order to please and engage him. It wasn’t just hard work. Dietmar and his wonderful wife Helena were excellent hosts and built group camaraderie with yearly winter parties at their home and a fun beach barbecue party at their summer place on Cape Cod.  Dietmar was a tough competitor in the pick-up beach soccer games.”

David Mueller (PhD ’70), made the decision to attend graduate school at MIT based solely on the prospect of joining Seyferth’s research group, which Mueller described as a family, with Seyferth in the role of pater familius. In recalling his mentor’s unpretentious nature, he remembered an instance in which his wife, Esther, first addressed Seyferth as “Dr. Seyferth.”

“He told her he could never deliver a baby,” Mueller said. “We called him Dietmar. His enthusiasm was contagious. We spent long hours in the lab. He encouraged us with his ‘What’s new?’ visits, and he challenged us, but didn’t micromanage. He partied and skied with us. His Christmas punch was legendary, and he marched with us against the injustices of the late ’60s.”

Craig Masterman (PhD ’93), mourns the loss of not only a great chemist, but “an enormous human being” who loved his students as though they were part of his family and had great respect for Russian and German chemists. “Dietmar was so kind in a Germanic way, which I can really appreciate being mostly of German descent myself,” said Masterman. “When my mom passed when I was at MIT in the middle of my thesis, he told me to go and come back when I felt up to it. For me, that was about one week. I think he always respected strength.”

James Burlitch (PhD ’65), carries fond musical memories of his mentor. “As a graduate student in the early 1960s, working with Dietmar was interesting, challenging, and fun,” said Burlitch. “On returning from one of his many speaking engagements, he would tour the labs to visit with each of us; as he approached a lab bench he’d say, ‘What’s new?’  In time, this expression was featured in a song written by grad student Ross Armbrecht and sung by our quartet in four part harmony at one of Dietmar’s memorable group parties: ‘What’s new? See the spots on the ceiling. What’s new? Where all the paint is peeling. What’s new? I have that strange old feeling, Dietmar’s back in town.’”

Seyferth is survived by his wife, Helena, son Eric and his wife Sara Reynolds of Bennington, VT, son Karl of Lexington, daughter Elisabeth and her husband Michael McKenna of Lexington, grandchildren Allison Perry and husband Brandon, Julia Seyferth, Elise Seyferth, Theodore McKenna, and Marshall McKenna, and great-grandchildren Caleb and William Perry.