Bob Grubbs, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who once taught at Michigan State, died last month (Dec 19) in Pasadena, CA. He has a fairly long, rich and productive life, but was felled by a heart attack while being treated for lymphoma.
Odds are that he might have died even if there had been no pandemic. But the death rate in America has skyrocketed over the past two years, and not just from Covid-19. The Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2020, the mortality rate rose by a shocking 17 percent for those of us over 15, and life expectancy fell by a full two years -- and was even worse among minorities.
Full statistics for last year won’t be available for months, but all indications are that this trend is continuing. Covid did come out of nowhere to be the third leading cause of death in 2020, after heart disease and cancer.
But death rates from other causes too; deaths from diabetes in 2020 were sixteen times higher than the year before. Why was this?
To some extent, this may have been because the virus made it harder for patients to see their doctors, get needed medication or be admitted to hospitals.
But a lot of it, medical experts believe, is due to heightened stress.
Interestingly, the one bright spot in that report was that infant mortality rates have continued to decline, which says to me that there is nothing much wrong with the fundamentals of medicine.
Now, I realize that I am old -- slightly older, in fact, than Bob Grubbs was, and I should expect to see more and more of my peers in the obituary pages.
Yet those pages are filling up too fast. So why did I start with Bob Grubbs?
Well, in a way he embodied the American dream. He was born on February 27, 1942, on a farm in Marshall County, Kentucky, midway between Possum Trot and Calvert City. His parents were a diesel mechanic and a schoolteacher. After World War II, the family moved to Paducah, where Robert attended high school.
At the University of Florida, Mr. Grubbs initially intended to study agricultural chemistry. However, his life was changed by a legendary professor, Merle Battiste, who persuaded him to switch to organic chemistry.
Bob Grubbs soon became interested in how chemical reactions occur, and his career took off. He earned a doctorate at Columbia University, ended up at the California Institute of Technology, and went on to win almost every prize chemists can win, including the Nobel Prize in 2005.
I met him in 1975, when he was an assistant professor at Michigan State. We were both working on polymeric catalysts, though his work would lead to practical products. In time, we would both go on to start successful businesses.
I had a fine career in academia and industry. But if ever a career illustrated the American dream and values, it was Bob Grubbs’ career. If anyone ever wrote his biography, it might well be called From Possum Creek to Stockholm.
Most importantly, he wasn’t just about himself. Along the way, he influenced literally hundreds of advanced students. They too started many businesses, and the entire American economy was enriched by this boy from Paducah whose parents might well have been sneered at a hillbillies.
Those who have more education and have fulfilling careers are more likely to live longer lives, as well as happier ones. And as I scan the obituary pages, I have to wonder how many might have lived longer had they been able to take advantage of American higher education in the way the boy from Paducah did, the boy who found an important career mentor at the University of Florida. I wonder how many had chances they didn’t or couldn’t take. More importantly, I wonder what we should do about that now. Regardless of all their faults, the American public and higher educational systems are mainly excellent. And I think those of us who have had that chances are bound to find a way to get those young persons in school so that they can achieve, and succeed.
There is, of course, more to a well-rounded life than work. After he left Michigan State, Bob Grubbs spent most of his career at CalTech, one of America’s premier technical universities. Once when he and I were talking in his office, the phone rang and he stopped to talk with one of his sons about the boy’s water polo game. As busy as Bob was, he was never too busy to pay attention to his kids. We need to remember that another key part of the American dream is parents who care.
We’ve got work to do. Education and learning have to rise to the top; ignorance and bluster need to be shown the door. Do that, and there may well be boys and girls from Rossford or East Toledo who one day may have a Nobel prize handed to them by a king or queen of Sweden.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also a former board chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y.