Faith was Nobel Prize winning chemist Victor Grignard's most important discovery

Brian Wilson shares the story of the French Nobel Prize winning chemist Victor Grignard whose scientific discoveries are still vitally important and in his later life experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus at a funeral...

French chemist Victor Grignard was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1912
French chemist Victor Grignard was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1912 French chemist Victor Grignard was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1912

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element on earth and the building block of life. Sugars, proteins, DNA and fats are all composed primarily of carbon atoms linked together by carbon-carbon bonds.

These bonds can be created by natural mechanisms, for example in plants, where light from the sun acts alongside carbon dioxide and water in a process known as photosynthesis to build longer carbon chains and enables plants to grow. But making these bonds synthetically is challenging.

Consequently, chemists and researchers are restricted to a small sub-set of chemicals, thereby limiting the library of compounds they have access to and minimising the applications of their work.

Enter Victor Grignard. Born in Cherbourg in 1871, François Auguste Victor Grignard was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1912 for "the discovery of the so-called Grignard reagent, which in recent years has greatly advanced the progress of organic chemistry".

This procedure uses magnesium to create a reactive 'Grignard reagent' which can be reacted with other carbon-containing compounds to create a variety of more complex structures.

As a recent article noted: "Grignard chemistry has vast applications in the pharmaceutical sector as it is used for the manufacture of several important drugs and medicines that are used to cure severe prolonged diseases including cancer."

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One important application of Grignard chemistry is in the industrial production of Tamoxifen. This is used to treat breast cancer in both men and women, and is also being studied for the treatment of other cancers. Recognised as an important part of the global healthcare system, it is currently listed on the World Health Organisation's Model List of Essential Medicines.

Owing to their versatility, demand for Grignard reagents within the pharmaceutical industry remains buoyant, reflected in the estimated annual sales revenue of around $2.8 billion in American and European markets in 2016.

An important limitation of Grignard reagents is their instability, as the organomagnesium compound readily reacts with water in moist air and decomposes. As a result, they must be handled under moisture-free conditions, typically in an atmosphere of nitrogen or argon. Yet work continues in developing more robust experimental procedures with even wider applications.

Grignard reagents are also increasingly finding applications in the agrochemical industry, in "the development of eco-friendly products with soil enriching properties." Additionally, they are used in the flavour and fragrance segment.

Victor Grignard began studying mathematics in 1889 at the Ecole Normale Spéciale, Cluny, France, a preparatory school for secondary school teachers. This institution closed two years later and Grignard transferred to Faculté des Sciences in Lyon, France, where he planned to complete a degree in mathematics.

His path was to take a different direction, however, as he failed his examinations and was directed to military service for a year. He returned to Lyon and passed his mathematics exams in 1893.

Although Grignard preferred mathematics to chemistry at the time, he was appointed assistant preparator at the Faculté in Lyon in December 1894. It was through the encouragement of a friend that he accepted this role, as he had little interest in chemistry initially.

He soon flourished in this environment, becoming the Research Leader in general chemistry and obtaining a degree in the physical sciences.

It was in 1901 that he began his long association with the great chemist Philippe Barbier, his main teacher. Barbier had discovered that methyl iodide reacted with ketones in the presence of magnesium to give tertiary alcohols, and tasked Grignard with optimising the reaction conditions.

Although Barbier was the first to discover the novel application of magnesium, he is said to have "lost interest in pursuing this reaction when he found the yields to be mediocre and frequently irreproducible, and he passed it on to Victor Grignard as his doctoral problem".

Over time, Grignard would optimise the reaction with great skill, producing a wide range of compounds at relatively high yields, making it the focus of his thesis. As the Nobel Prize website notes: "In 1901 he submitted his brilliant thesis on organic magnesium compounds Sur les Combinaisons organomagnésiennes mixtes, and was awarded the degree Docteur ès Sciences de Lyons."

It is notable that Grignard published his doctoral work under his name alone, suggesting that Barbier's contribution to the work was minor. Yet it was Barbier who initiated the work, and Grignard felt that he would have preferred to share the prize with his supervisor, Barbier, rather than with another chemist, Paul Sabatier.

As Grignard noted in a letter to a friend just days after returning from accepting the prize: " tell the truth, and between us, I would even have preferred to wait a little longer, to see the prize shared between Sabatier and Senderens, and then share it myself with Barbier at a later time."

Grignard would later hold various key roles at universities throughout his career as a professor of chemistry. He was also mobilised for the First World War as a corporal, but his superiors soon became aware of his chemistry skills, and redirected him to study chemical warfare agents at Sorbonne University, Paris.

Shortly before the war, he married and would go on to have two children with his wife, Augustine Marie Boulan. After the war, he returned to academic work in chemistry. He received many other awards in addition to the Nobel Prize, including the Cahours Prize of the Institut de France (1901, 1902) , the Prix Jecker (1905), and the Lavoisier Medal (1912), and he was made Commandeur in the Légion d'Honneur in 1933.

In the years after his seminal publication, the field of Grignard chemistry flourished. By his death in 1935, he had made over 170 publications and there were over 6,000 references to organomagnesium compounds in the literature.

The website of the Society of Catholic Scientists reports that Victor Grignard's wife and son were very devout, but he "was indifferent to religion until late in life". His parish priest, Fr Laurent Remillieux, tells us that a key moment for Victor came when he attended a funeral and was "overwhelmed" by the prayers and rites of the Mass. It ultimately led him to "deeper reflection and study of religious questions", attending lectures by a priest.

As he was dying, Grignard confided in Fr Remillieux that he had recognised his earlier "ignorance" and was ready to make confession of his sins.

Catholics recognise that, "Man is by nature and vocation a religious being," and he will live "a fully human life only if he freely lives by his bond with God". It is surely unsurprising to Catholics that it was through the Mass that Victor Grignard experienced the Lord Jesus Christ, because the Church recognises: "Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations.

"He is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass not only in the person of his minister, 'the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,' but especially in the Eucharistic species.

"By his power he is present in the sacraments so that when anybody baptises, it is really Christ himself who baptises. He is present in his word since it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church.

"Lastly, he is present when the Church prays and sings, for he has promised, 'where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.'"

In the Mass, we experience part of the eternal joy of heaven, our home and our resting place, gained for us by the Lord Jesus Christ. As the Church recognises: "In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle.

"With all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, until he, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with him in glory."

The achievements of Victor Grignard are impressive. Yet his story reminds us of how scientific discoveries often come about through a complex web of human interactions guided by the mysterious influence of God. Without his initial failure in mathematics, the encouragement of his friend to study chemistry or the earlier discoveries of his supervisor, it is unclear whether Grignard would have made the impact he did.

As Pope Francis says: "The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures."

Grignard's relationships and enquiring mind led him to a deeper understanding of the natural world, and he used these to advance the common good well before his late repentance. But it was ultimately this direct encounter with Jesus Christ at the funeral in the final years of his life which led him to ponder what really matters and to return to full friendship with God.

May we continue to be blessed with scientists who use their knowledge and expertise to create a better world, whilst also possessing the courage to confidently profess and affirm their Christian faith.

:: Brian Wilson grew up in Ballymena, Co Antrim and holds a PhD in Organic Chemistry from the University of Oxford. He is a seminarian for the Diocese of Down and Connor at the Venerable English College in Rome