Frank Albert Cotton

Contributions to Science

        F. A. Cotton has rendered distinguished service to science in many ways.  His research, which has led to over 1570 journal publications, is most conspicuous, and that will be considered first.  However, he has been a remarkable contributor in other ways as well, notably in teaching and the writing of textbooks and in the formulation of national policy for science and technology.  His overall success in so many varied endeavors is equaled by very few living American chemists.


        Both the quantity and the significance of Cotton’s research are prodigious.  Certainly among inorganic chemists, if not indeed generally, the breadth of his active interests and his impact are unparalleled.  He has made original fundamental contributions in organometallic chemistry, metal carbonyl chemistry, metal-metal bonds and metal clusters, electronic structure and bonding, and structural chemistry.  There are few, if any, more productive crystallographers in the world; his work in this field includes not only over 2500 small molecule structures but also one of the most precise and most widely used protein structures ever done, that of Staph. Nuclease.  Moreover, this structure was solved in the 1965-1968 period when protein structure determination was still a highly innovative field, at the cutting edge of molecular biology.  It was one of the first few to be brought to atomic resolution and is today a workhorse for studies of enzyme function, employing site-directed mutagenesis.

         Cotton has demonstrated an exceptional mastery of preparative chemistry. He has discovered many new classes of compounds and the methods for preparing them.  The quality of this preparative work is second to none in the fields of inorganic and organometallic chemistry.  Moreover, in addition to systematic definitive characterization of his compounds by crystallography – a now common research style in inorganic chemistry that he pioneered – he has made imaginative and often original use of other physical techniques, as in his classic nmr studies of fluxional organometallic and metal carbonyl molecules and his single-crystal polarized light studies of metal-metal bonds and metal atom clusters.

         In addition to all of this he and his group have applied state-of-the-art theoretical methods to many problems, most notably in using SCF-Xα-SW, density functional, and HF-CI methods to study metal-metal bonds and metal atom clusters.


         Finally, it must be specifically mentioned that Cotton's work on metal-metal bonds and in particular on quadruple and other multiple ones, is one of the stunning creative accomplishments of twentieth-century chemistry.  In the book Multiple Bonds between Metal Atoms which he co-authored with R. A. Walton, the development of this chemistry, largely through his efforts, is traced in detail.  In his preface to the first edition of this book, Roald Hoffmann makes the following statement:

“when the tangled web of our experience is so transformed, by one person, into symmetries of pristine order and the chemical equivalent of the rich diversity of pattern of an oriental carpet – it is then that one encounters a moment of intellectual pleasure that really makes one feel good about being a chemist.

Such a story is that of metal-metal multiple bonding.  A recognition of the structural and theoretical significance of the Re-Re quadruple bond by F. A. Cotton in 1964 was followed by a systematic and rational exploration of metal-metal bonding across the transition series.  Cotton and his able coworkers have made most such complexes.  The consistent and proficient use of X-ray crystallo­graphic results in their studies, not only for structure determination but as an inspiration to further synthetic chemistry, has served as a model for modern inorganic research.  Much of the chemistry of metal-metal multiple-bonded species--and interesting chemistry it is indeed--is due to F. A. Cotton and his students.  Throughout his intellectual journey into fresh chemistry they have been guided by a lucid theoretical framework.  Their bounteous achievement is detailed in this book.  I want to record here my personal thanks to them for providing us with the psychological satisfaction of viewing a scientific masterpiece.”


         Before the work of F. A. Cotton, beginning in about 1963, the known chemistry of the transition elements fell entirely within the conceptual frame-work of Werner's Coordination Theory (for which the Nobel prize of 1913 was given).  The Coordination Theory does not recognize the existence of metal-metal bonds, and there was no indication that they would be of any general importance.  Cotton's work, beginning with his studies of the rhenium species, Re3Cl123- and Re2Cl82-, in the early 1960's, has demonstrated that there is an enormous "non-Werner" chemistry of the transition metals in which metal-metal bonds are the critical feature.  There is now such a large number of "non-Werner" compounds that they constitute a new, second chemistry of the transition metals.  By continuing, systematic studies (preparative, structural and theoretical) he has extended our knowledge of this chemistry right across the periodic table, from Zr-Zr single bonds, V≡V, and Nb≡Nb and Ta≡Ta triple bonds, through quadruple bonds for Cr24+, Mo24+, W24+ complexes, to his recent discoveries concerning Fe–Fe, Co–Co, Ru–Ru, Os–Os and many other M–M bonds in which there are electrons in excess of the eight required for a quadruple bond.  Cotton has also made extensive and highly creative contributions to the chemistry of tri-, tetra- and hexanuclear metal atom cluster compounds.  While many others have made important contributions to this new chemistry, Cotton has consistently been the leader and has made a majority of the seminal discoveries.  No one would contest the claim that he, alone, is the pioneer in this area.  At the same time, it is remarkable that his work in this area constitutes only about half of his published research, the rest being concerned with other major areas in which he led the way, such as fluxionality in metal-organic and metal carbonyl molecules, spectroscopy of metal carbonyls and one of the earliest high-resolution protein structure determinations.

         The impact of Cotton's research is shown by the prominent position he occupies on lists of most-cited authors, periodically issued by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI).  For more than 20 years he continuously ranked with Pauling and Pople as one of the three most-cited authors in Chemistry.  For the period 1981 - June 1997 he was 19th on the list of most cited chemists and the highest ranked inorganic chemist.  The next two most highly cited inorganic chemists were both his former students.


         Cotton is one of the most prolific and successful writers of textbooks in science today.  He has written at every level from high school general chemistry to the post-Ph.D. monograph level, and all his books have been successful, both intellectually and commercially. 

         CHEMISTRY, AN INVESTIGATIVE APPROACH.  This high school chemistry book is now out of print, but it sold over 350,000 copies.  There were three foreign language editions. 

         CHEMICAL APPLICATIONS OF GROUP THEORY.  This book on group theory for chemists is without a doubt the place where most chemists who employ symmetry arguments in their research have learned the fundamentals.  It appeared in a revised and expanded third edition in 1990.  More than 70,000 copies have been sold in English and there have been translations into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Japanese and Chinese.

         ADVANCED INORGANIC CHEMISTRY.  For thirty-five years this book, written with the late Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson, and soon to appear in its sixth edition, has been the most authoritative and comprehensive textbook on modern inorganic chemistry in the world.  About half a million copies have been sold in English and it has been translated into German (2nd, 3rd, 4th editions), Italian (2nd, 3rd, 4th), Chinese (2nd, 3rd), Spanish (2nd, 4th), Russian (2nd), Japanese (2nd, 4th), Czech (2nd), and Bulgarian (3rd).

         BASIC INORGANIC CHEMISTRY.  A short textbook now in its third edition, co-authored with Wilkinson and P. L. Gaus, has sold nearly 100,000 copies and has been translated into German, Russian, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, Malaysian, Persian, Chinese, Indonesian, Italian and Polish.

         MULTIPLE BONDS BETWEEN METAL ATOMS, 1st ed. 1982, 2nd ed. 1993, (R. A. Walton, coauthor).  This is the definitive treatise on the subject.  (Russian translation, 1985)

         Other Books:  Cotton founded the series and edited the first ten volumes of Progress in Inorganic Chemistry (now up to Volume 41 under K. D. Karlin).  He edited Volume 13 of Inorganic Syntheses, co-edited (with L. Jackman) Dynamic Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, and co-edited (with R. D. Adams) Catalysis by Di- and Polynuclear Metal Cluster Complexes.


         Cotton has had a direct educational impact on chemistry through the training of more than 100 Ph.D. students and over 130 postdoctoral research associates.  Of his Ph.D. students, 35 hold or have held tenured faculty positions, and this includes posi­tions at Harvard, MIT, Yale, Purdue, Berkeley, Duke, Northwestern, Illinois, Brandeis and McGill as well as other major training centers for future genera­tions of chemists.  A number of others have pursued distinguished careers in the chemical industry.  Four of his former students are members of NAS or NAE.


         Despite the immense amount of writing, research and teaching he has done, Cotton has also devoted major efforts to important outside activities of benefit to American science in general.  Most notable among these activities are his service on the National Science Board (NSB) and in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).  He was first appointed to the NSB (a body appointed by the President of the United States to oversee the National Science Foundation and to advise the President on the state of science in the country) in 1986 and was invited to serve a second six-year term in 1992.  In the NAS, to which he was elected in 1967 at the age of 37, he has served as Secretary and then Chairman of the Class of Physical Sciences and has been a member of the governing council, including the Executive Committee of the Council, a member of the Governing Board of the National Research Council (the “operating arm” of the NAS) and a member of the NAS Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP).  The role of COSEPUP is to deal with the most important and sensitive issues relating to the role of science and technology in American life.

         Among other important activities in the science policy area have been the following:

Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, Argonne Nat. Lab., 1985-87.
Board on Chemical Science and Technology (NAS/NRC), 1982-84.
Planning Committee for Opportunities in Chemistry (Pimentel Report), 1982.
U. S. National Committee for the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, 1979-81.
Councillor, American Chemical Society, 1978-80.
Chairman, Division of Inorganic Chemistry, ACS, 1978.
Board of Directors, Inorganic Syntheses, 1973-77.
Chairman, Publishers Advisory Board, Elsevier Inorganic Journals, 1998- .


         Cotton has been widely recognized, both nationally and internationally, for his scientific work.  The following are particularly notable.

American Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected at age 32) 1962
National Academy of Sciences (elected at age 37) 1967
New York Academy of Sciences (Honorary Life Member), 1977
American Philosophical Society, 1992

Foreign Academies:

Royal Danish Academy, (Hon. Mem.) 1975
Göttingen Academy of Sciences, (Corresp. Mem.) 1979
Italian Chemical Society (Hon. Mem.), 1981
Royal Society of Chemistry (Hon. Mem.), 1981
Indian Academy of Sciences (Hon. Fell.), 1985
Indian Nat. Sci. Academy (Hon. Mem.), 1985
Royal Society of Edinburgh (Hon. Fell.), 1987
Academia Europaea (For. Mem.), 1992
Russian Academy of Sciences (For. Mem.), 1994
Royal Society of London (For. Mem.), 1994
French Academy of Sciences (For. Mem.), 1995

ACS Section Gold Medals

Baekeland (New Jersey) 1963
Nichols (N. Y.) 1975
Pauling (Oregon & Puget sound) 1976
Kirkwood (New Haven) 1978
Gibbs (Chicago) 1980
Richards (New England) 1986
Cotton (Texas A&M) 1995

Other Awards

The National Medal of Science, 1982
Guggenheim Fellowships, 1956, 1989
Centenary Medal and Lectureship, (Royal Society of Chemistry), 1974
American Chemical Society Award in Inorganic Chemistry (the first one), 1962
American Chemical Society Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of   Inorganic Chemistry (making Cotton the first person to receive both ACS   inorganic awards), 1974
ACS Southwest Regional Award, 1977
Michelson-Morley Award, Case Western Reserve University, 1980
Nyholm Medal and Lectureship, (Royal Society of Chemistry), 1982.
New York Academy of Sciences Award in Physical and Mathematical Sciences, 1983
A. R. Todd Professor of Chemistry, Cambridge University, 1985-86
National Academy of Sciences Award in the Chemical Sciences, 1990
King Faisal International Prize in Science, 1990
Alexander von Humboldt Senior Award, 1990
Paracelsus Prize, Swiss Chemical Society, 1994
Medal of the University of Padua, 1994
Robert A. Welch Award, 1994
Polyhedron Prize for Creativity in Inorganic Chemistry, 1995
Sigillium Magnum 250 (Inorganica Chimica Acta), 1996
John Scott Medal of the City of Philadelphia, 1997
The Priestly Medal of the American Chemical Society, 1998
The Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemsits, 1998.

Named Lectureships and Visiting Professorships.  Cotton has received 87 of these.

Other ACS Awards: Coover (Ames, Iowa); Debye (Cornell); Lind (E. Tennessee), Renaud (Mich. St. U.); Madison Marshall (N. Alabama); Edgar Fahs Smith (Phila); Harrison Howe (Rochester).

Honorary Doctorates

Temple University, 1963
Bielefeld University, 1979
Columbia University, 1980
Northwestern University, 1981
Université de Bordeaux, 1981
St. Joseph's University, 1982
Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg, 1982
Universidad deValencia, Spain 1983
Kenyon College, 1983
The Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, 1983
Cambridge University, 1986
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt, 1989
University of South Carolina, 1989
University of Rennes, 1992
Lomonosov (Moscow) University, 1992
Fujian Institute of Research on the Structure of Matter, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 1993
Università di Pisa, 1994
Universidad de Zaragoza, 1994
Cleveland State University, 1995
University of Crête, 1996
Michigan State University, 1996
Université Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris VI), 1997
University of Palermo, 1997