(March 23, 1926 – Sept. 2, 2013)
John Dudley Corbett was an ISU Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences/Chemistry and member of the National Academy of Sciences whose 61-year research interests were within the specialized field of inorganic solid-state chemistry.
Corbett was born March 23, 1926 and grew up in Yakima, WA. In high school, in addition to academics, he practiced falconry and was a skilled ice-skater. After graduation in 1944, he enlisted in the Navy. He enrolled in officer training and pursued his undergraduate studies, subject to wartime conditions, at several institutions: North Dakota Teachers College and University of Wisconsin-Madison where he learned general and chemical engineering.
He was two years into becoming an engineer when the war ended, bringing his Naval career to a halt. He had half an engineering degree but had taken a number of chemistry courses, so he went home to Washington, got a BS degree in 1948 in chemistry and went on to get a PhD there in physical chemistry. His dissertation was on “Anhydrous Aluminum Halides and Mixed Halide Intermediates” under the guidance of Prof. Norman W. Gregory, who specialized in experimental investigations of the physical and chemical properties of metal halides.
John joined the Iowa State University (ISU) faculty and Ames Laboratory in 1952 in inorganic chemistry. He wound up in Ames because at the time, he said, there were only three or four job openings in the whole country in inorganic chemistry and one of the best was at Iowa State. And at that time, you could count the number of solid-state inorganic chemists (in the U.S.) “on one hand.”
He credits Ames Lab with making his work possible, particularly in the early years. “There was really nowhere else I could have done the work,” he said. “The innovation of using nonreactive tantalum containers was developed here and allowed us to carry out reactions that weren’t possible before.” Improvements in analytical instrumentation contributed greatly to the field and his work. Ames Laboratory’s service capabilities and having four diffractometers “within 75 feet of his office” made the work easier and produced much faster results.
In 1963, he was promoted to Professor of Chemistry and Senior Chemist of Ames Laboratory, serving as Department Chair from 1968 to 1973. He was Program Director of Materials Chemistry from 1974 to 1978, and in 1983 he received Iowa State University’s highest honor for faculty by being named a Distinguished Professor.
During his academic career, John mentored 41 PhD students, 15 MS students, and 71 postdoctoral scientists many of whom he kept in close contact with and who praised his mentorship, friendship, energy, and enthusiasm for chemistry. Most of these students went on to successful careers in materials or solid-state chemistry, spanning industrial, academic, and government sectors around the world. The future of solid-state chemistry is being shaped by his former students and co-workers.
He published over 450 articles in peer-reviewed journals and presented over 330 invited seminars around the world. He managed an active and vigorous research program throughout his career and was mentoring three postdoctoral students in research activities supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) when he passed away in 2013.
On the basis of his scientific accomplishments, he received numerous awards including the American Chemical Society Awards for Inorganic Chemistry in 1986, the Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Inorganic Chemistry in 2000 and the F. Albert Cotton Award in Synthetic Inorganic Chemistry in 2008. He received the Humboldt Prize (1985), the DOE awards for Outstanding Scientific Accomplishments in Materials Chemistry in 1987 and for Sustained Outstanding Accomplishments in Materials Chemistry in 1995, as well as the 11th Frank H. Spedding Award in 2005 given in recognition of excellence and achievement in research centered on the science and technology of the rare earths. He was elected a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1992. In 2009, Corbett was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry that honors those who make substantial contributions to advancing the wider application of chemical science.
In 2007 he established an endowed professorship at ISU in his name.
John’s scientific career included many major areas of accomplishment that originated with imaginative synthetic principles or procedures and often revealed unprecedented or inconceivable species, many of which have been included in chemistry textbooks. Almost the entire periodic table of the elements was his playground. And, like a child playing gleefully in a sandbox, John brought his youthful enthusiasm and energy to the research activities in his group. This vitality for research and love of fundamental science was contagious and inspired both his students and his colleagues.
In a 2012 interview, he said, “I’ve spent most of my career working with rare-earth and related metals trying to find novel or unusual compounds. If you consider ternary compounds (alloys) from just the metals, there are over 10,000 possibilities. So there are lots to consider and I just continued to run reactions and keep my eyes open.” In keeping his eyes open, he and his co-workers discovered hundreds of new materials, including the discovery of the first quasicrystal containing sodium, in a sodium-gold-gallium compound. His work had tremendous impact and broadened the understanding of chemical bonding in complex inorganic solids.
Although he gave up classroom teaching after 48 years, Corbett did not give up research and passing along his expertise to additional generations of graduate students and postdocs. He remained an active and lively scientific speaker at national and international meetings. Up until the day he died at age 87, he went to his office daily.
John and his wife Irene raised three children. He treasured his time tending the garden and puttering in the yard and woods; the physical effort and dirt under his fingernails was the perfect complement to all the brain-time spent on chemistry. A board member of Ames Town and Gown, a chamber music organization, John loved classical music and lingered after church to hear the organ recessional. He adored great food and enthusiastically explored ethnic cuisine on his world travel to chemistry conferences. His passport had only a few unstamped pages.
He died, days after suffering a stroke, on Labor Day, September 2, 2013 and was preceded in death by his wife Irene.
Ames Laboratory news by Kerry Gibson, 2013
ISU Department of Chemistry news 9/2013
Special American Chemical Society Journal issue honoring Prof. John D. Corbett, Published: February 2, 2015, pubs.acs.org/IC