THE END

His mom couldn’t stand his constant chatter and sent him to school early. He won the Nobel Prize.

HENRY TAUBE

CATHY GULLI December 12 2005
THE END

His mom couldn’t stand his constant chatter and sent him to school early. He won the Nobel Prize.

HENRY TAUBE

CATHY GULLI December 12 2005

His mom couldn’t stand his constant chatter and sent him to school early. He won the Nobel Prize.

THE END

1915-2005

HENRY TAUBE

Henry Taube was born on Nov. 30, 1915, in the village of Neudorf, Sask., about 135 km northeast of Regina. His parents were Russian immigrants, who raised four boys in a sod hut on a thousand-acre wheat farm in nearby Oakshela, a prairie patch on the Trans-Canada. Henry was the precocious runt of the bunch. His mother, unable to stand his constant chatter, sent him early to the local one-room schoolhouse. By the age of 12, he’d completed all the classes. His parents didn’t have the money for Luther College high school in Regina, so Henry cleaned labs and tutored there in exchange for an education. Four years later, a teacher encouraged him to attend the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Henry, an undersized 16-year-old, went on a scholarship, hoping to study English. The first day was so overwhelming,

Henry couldn’t figure out where to register. When he ran into an old Luther College friend who’d just enrolled in chemistry, Henry did the same.

By 1937, he’d received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science. His professors wrote letters to colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, arranging for him to do his doctorate in chemistry there. Henry, who’d never left the Prairies, hopped a Greyhound bus to America. He got his Ph.D. in 1940, and taught at Berkeley for a year, then spent five years as a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. In 1946, he moved to the University of Chicago. Wherever he taught,

Henry was known as a profound thinker, but he was never stodgy.

He would pace the lab sipping beer from his office fridge, bantering with students about its chemical properties.

It was in Chicago, just as the Second World War ended, that Henry met the love of his life, Mary, at a campus dance. They wed in 1951, H§ and had two sons, Karl and Heinrich. Henry and Mary already each had a daughter from a previous relationship: Linda and Marianna. After 16 years in Chicago, Henry moved back to California, family in tow, this time to teach at Stanford University. His long-time passion for oxidation-reduction or “redox” reactions (whereby electrons are lost and gained during chemical processes) became his life’s work. “He was an absolute pioneer,” says Stanford colleague Jim Coliman, who knew Henry for more than 40 years. “We’re quite dependent on his ideas.” Those ideas were so significant they led to at least 18 major scientific discoveries, and in 1983, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in

chemistry. Throughout his career, he received dozens of scientific honours, including the Guggenheim, twice.

And still, Henry always referred to himself as “a farm boy from Saskatchewan,” though he became a naturalized American in 1942. The award money he received he spent on practical purchases, such as a screen door. “Most scientists and Nobel laureates have their heads in the sky,” says Aileen Agustin, an external relations manager at Stanford. “Prof. Taube was very grounded.” Before winning the Nobel, Henry half-joked with Coliman about leaving science before his mind faded; he had other things he wanted to do. “He said if he

couldn’t be a chemist, he would be a gardener,” says Mary. “He always liked flowers. Especially roses. I suspect that’s because there weren’t a lot of flowers in the wheat fields.”

But Henry never left science, or Stanford for that matter. The year before he turned 65, he was miserable with worry he would be forced to retire. “He just thought there was more he had to do,” says Mary. So Henry kept teaching until a few years ago, when his memory began slipping. He stopped lecturing but sat on committees, wrote recommendation letters, and mused at the chemistry questions of his students and colleagues. Though Henry struggled more and more to comment on the complex science processes he’d spent so many years explaining, he walked daily the two kilometres back and forth to his office. “I have no idea what he did there, but he didn’t feel comfortable if he didn’t go,” says Mary. One morning recently, Henry rose and readied for the day, and walked along the Victorian treelined street of Stanford’s faculty ghetto to his campus office. When he saw Aileen, who wears a crucifix, instead of the question he always asked, “How can you believe? There is no proof,” he asked her: “So you still believe?” She replied: “No proof needed.” Henry eventually returned home to work in the rose garden. Mary watched him and then they shared a good dinner before retiring to bed. The next morning, Mary awoke without her husband’s usual prod. She assumed he’d gone to school early. A short time later, Mary found him lying on their bathroom floor, unbruised but cold.

On Nov. 16, 2005, Henry Taube, 89, died of natural causes in his home of more than 30 years on the Stanford campus.

BY CATHY GULLI