Longtime Hopkins chemist Alex Nickon dies at 93

He spent 39 years in the Department of Chemistry before retiring as professor emeritus in 1994

Organic chemist Alex Nickon, who spent 39 years in the Department of Chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, died March 24 in Copper Canyon, Texas, of pneumonia related to COVID-19. He was 93.

A revered scientist, teacher, and mentor, Nickon was known for his academic rigor; deep engagement with students and colleagues; integrity, kindness, honesty, and generosity; and his sense of humor and play, often performing magic tricks for his three daughters and other children.

Nickon was an authority on the study of reaction mechanisms of carbon molecules. His experimental systems were marked by acutely clever design to isolate a particular molecular phenomenon for rigorous investigation. His use of structural symmetry and deuterium-trapping experiments yielded insights free from confounding biases. In particular, the behavior of reactive intermediates such as carbocations and carbenes and their rearrangement reactions were recurring themes in his research. He is perhaps best known for studies of homoenolization or homoketonization in which C–H bonds, which are remote from a carbonyl group and would be thought to be wholly inert, can in fact be activated in certain geometric situations for reaction.

"...He maintained a genuine humanity and care for his students that was obvious in how he treated everyone with respect. He was a true gentleman."
Anne McElwee Reeve
Former student

"Alex Nickon was a dedicated teacher in the graduate level spectroscopy course," wrote Anne McElwee Reeve, who graduated from Johns Hopkins with her PhD in 1992. "He approached the subject with passion and meticulous attention to detail, thoroughly exploring diverse aspects of the topic, including many ideas that could be generalized to other areas of chemistry. At the same time, he maintained a genuine humanity and care for his students that was obvious in how he treated everyone with respect. He was a true gentleman."

Born in Cholojow, Poland, Nickon emigrated with his family to Alberta, Canada, at age 2. He earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Alberta in 1949, and earned master's and doctoral degrees in organic chemistry from Harvard. Before arriving at Hopkins as assistant professor in 1955, he held postdoctoral positions at the University of London and the University of Ottawa. In 1975, he was named Vernon K. Krieble Professor of Chemistry, and upon retiring in 1994, he was named Vernon K. Krieble Professor Emeritus.

"When sought out, Alex was a rock. He'd been watching all along," wrote Craig Townsend, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, in a remembrance of Nickon. "He knew what to say, and he was unfailingly encouraging and enthusiastic in his support, but firm in the expectations. It always felt good after going to talk with him … . There was much to be learned, always given generously and with the best intent and the benefit of deep experience. ... His broad smile and confident, look-you-in-the-eye directness was ever true."

Nickon was a 71-year member of the American Chemical Society, and in 1990 he received the group's Maryland Chemist of the Year award. He published more than 90 research papers and co-authored a book, and served as senior editor of the Journal of Organic Chemistry (1965-1971), and as the American executive editor of Tetrahedron (1978-1996).

Nickon was a steady presence in the department, supporting students and colleagues with thoughtful advice about research, writing, and careers, and always asked insightful questions during seminars and talks.

"I so admired Alex's kindness and concern for all students in the chemistry department and undergrads," wrote former department secretary Rosalie Elder. "He had such integrity in dealing with everyone no matter how important they were or what problem they brought to him for his advice. He always had time for you, and his office was a peaceful environment."