Robert T. Morrison, retired professor and co-author of a renowned best-selling organic chemistry textbook, died peacefully April 25, 2010 at the age of 91 at his home in Morristown, New Jersey, after a long illness.
Dr. Morrison was born in Lima, Ohio, in 1918, grew up in Springfield, Ohio, and attended Wittenberg College in his hometown, where he graduated at the top of his class in 1939. He then earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Chicago in 1944, where he met his future wife Joan Wehlen.
After serving in the Navy in World War II as a radar officer and completing post-doctoral work at Northwestern University, he accepted a professorship at New York University, where he taught from 1948 until his early retirement in 1968.
In 1959, he and NYU colleague Robert N. Boyd published their groundbreaking textbook, which transformed the teaching of organic chemistry. Previous textbooks emphasized memorization and relied on professors to flesh out the material and introduce the underlying mechanisms, as students dutifully transcribed endless notes from the chalkboard. Morrison & Boyd presented the material comprehensively, fully explaining the mechanisms step by step in a readable and accessible style. It was also notable for its effective problem sets, which progressed from elementary to more advanced, enabling students to build confidence while deepening their understanding. This freed classroom time for in-depth discussion instead of rote notetaking.
Morrison & Boyd soon became the dominant required text in the field, a mainstay for generations of second-year college chemistry students, and a model emulated by other textbooks. Through its six editions, it sold more than two million copies worldwide, making it by far the best-selling organic chemistry textbook ever, as well as one of the best-selling college textbooks on any subject.
In 2001, the journal of the American Chemical Society, Chemistry, cited Morrison & Boyd as one of the 24 "Great Books of Chemistry" of all time, alongside pioneering works dating back 500 years. As the editors wrote, "Do any chemists (or pre-med students) who graduated in the last 40 years not tremble just a bit when they hear the phrase ‘Morrison and Boyd’?"
Dr. Morrison was preceded in death by his wife of 66 years, Joan Wehlen Morrison, who died two months earlier. He is survived by his children, Robert K. Morrison of Arlington, Massachusetts; James V. Morrison of Danville, Kentucky; and Susan S. Morrison of Austin, Texas; and five grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Atlantic Hospice, 33 Bleeker Street, Millburn, NJ 07041.
Robert K. Morrison
Son of Robert T. Morrison
I didn't know Bob Morrison, but I certainly did know - and greatly appreciate - "Morrison and Boyd." That book changed the way organic chemistry was taught and influenced thousands, perhaps more, lives and careers. For the very first time, organic chemistry was not treated as a near-endless sequence of facts to be memorized. Instead, we students were led towards understanding and generalizing. Everyone in chemistry, especially those of us who have become teachers, owes an enormous debt to that book, and its authors.
Professor of Chemistry, NYU
David B. Jones Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, Princeton University
It is not as well known that Bob Morrison was very active in research in his years at NYU. When Bob Shapiro and I came to NYU in September 1961, Shapiro at Washington Square and I at the University Heights campus in the Bronx, Bob Morrison had a large research group, perhaps the largest in the Chemistry Department at that time. Morrison's area of interest was physical organic chemistry; he was engaged in several different mechanistically-oriented projects within this discipline, including reactions of Grignard reagents in the presence of transition metal cations, reactions of peroxides, and solvolytic reactions of phosphonic esters. The quality of the work done in Morrison's group was very high, as judged by the quality of the Ph.D dissertations which Bob Shapiro and I read very frequently during the 1960's. Morrison unfortunately was reluctant to publish his work because in his opinion it was not finished to his very exacting standards. If his work had been published, Bob Morrison would have been known as one of the top physical organic chemists in this country. The cognoscenti in his areas of interest were aware of Bob's research, and frequently quoted data and results contained in the many excellent Ph.D dissertations produced by his group. Together with Bob Boyd, who was not active in research, Bob Morrison did bring luster to our department through their ground-breaking textbook, which had a huge effect on the teaching of organic chemistry to undergraduates around the world. I personally found Bob Morrison to be a very bright man and a congenial colleague. I was sorry that he chose to retire at a relatively early stage in his academic career to concentrate on his writing.
David I. Schuster
Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, NYU
I was Bob Morrison's colleague during the period 1961-1966. Although my personal contact with him was limited, I know that he maintained very high standards, both in his teaching and his research, and that the people who were familiar with his work had high respect for his intellect. The following acecdote may or may not be true. It is said that he was being prepared for surgery, and the surgeon said "Hello, Professor Morrison." Morrison then asked him if he had been in his organic chemistry class. The answer was "yes." Morrison then asked what grade the surgeon had received. When he was told the grade had been an A, Professor Morrison then indicated that the surgery could proceed.
Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, NYU
I, too, was a colleague of Professor Morrison, serving with him from my arrival at NYU in 1962 through his retirement in 1968. I concur with the comments of my colleagues. As a very junior physical chemist, my contacts with Bob, a well-respected senior organic chemist, were few. Nevertheless, those contacts were always friendly and he was always encouraging. His book was, of course, both very popular and very important. As Maitland Jones has written, it changed the method of teaching organic chemistry. As a bare survivor of the older method of the "near endless sequence of facts to be memorized" school of teaching organic chemistry, I know that I would have profited greatly had Morrison and Boyd been available earlier.
Paul J. Gans
Professor of Chemistry, NYU
Thank you to those who have posted comments about my father's book. My two brothers and I grew up hearing about "The Book." I was born the same year that the first edition of the book came out (1959), so I always felt it was my somewhat more scientific twin. We saw our dad going to the study to write and we lived with the book. But to hear chemists speak about my dad and how his teaching, research and writing were effective is truly humbling. We are so happy to know about how his and Bob Boyd's legacy lives on. Many, many thanks.
Daughter of Robert T. Morrison