Elias James Corey thumb picture

Elias James Corey

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1990


Elias James CoreyMy birth in July 1928 in Methuen, Massachusetts was followed just eighteen months later by the death of my father, Elias, a successful business man in that community 30 miles north of Boston. My mother, Fatina (née Hasham), changed my name from William to Elias shortly after my father's passing. I do not remember my father, but all his friends and associates made it clear that he was a remarkably gifted and much admired person. I have always been guided by a desire to be a worthy son to the father I cannot remember and to the loving, courageous mother who raised me, my brother, and two sisters through the trials of the Depression and World War II. My grandparents on both sides, who emigrated from Lebanon to the United States, also knew how to cope with adversity, as Christians in a tragically torn country, under the grip of the Ottoman empire.

In 1931, our family grew to include my mother's sister, Naciby, and her husband, John Saba, who had no children of their own. We all lived together in a spacious house in Methuen, still a gathering place for family reunions. My uncle and aunt were like second parents to us. As a youngster I was rather independent, preferring such sports as football, baseball and hiking to work. However, when my aunt, who was much stricter than my mother, assigned a household chore, it had to be taken seriously. From her I learned to be efficient and to take pleasure in a job well done, no matter how mundane. We were a very close, happy and hardworking family with everything that we needed, despite the loss of my father and the hard economic times. Uncle John died in 1957, and too soon afterwards, in 1960, my aunt passed away. My mother died in 1970 at the age of seventy. They all lived to see each of the four children attain a measure of success.

From the ages of five to twelve I attended the Saint Laurence O'Toole elementary school in Lawrence, a city next to Methuen, and was taught by sisters of the Catholic order of Notre Dame de Namour. I enjoyed all my subjects there. I do not remember ever learning any science, except for mathematics. I graduated from Lawrence Public High School at the age of sixteen and entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just a few weeks later, in July, 1945, with excellent preparation, since most of my high school teachers had been dedicated and able. Although my favorite subject was mathematics, I had no plan for a career, except the notion that electronic engineering might be attractive, since it utilized mathematics at an interesting technological frontier. My first courses at M.I.T. were in the basic sciences: mathematics, physics and chemistry, all of which were wonderful. I became a convert to chemistry before even taking an engineering course because of the excellence and enthusiasm of my teachers, the central position of chemistry in the sciences and the joy of solving problems in the laboratory. Organic chemistry was especially fascinating with its intrinsic beauty and its great relevance to human health. I had many superb teachers at M.I.T., including Arthur C. Cope, John C. Sheehan, John D. Roberts and Charles Gardner Swain. I graduated from M.I.T. after three years and, at the suggestion of Professor Sheehan, continued there as a graduate member of his pioneering program on synthetic penicillins. My doctoral work was completed by the end of 1950 and, at