Second Nobel for a Princeton professor in two days as David MacMillan wins chemistry prize

Princeton University Professor David MacMillan. Photo courtesy of Princeton University Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2012).

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for 2021 to David MacMillan of Princeton University and Benjamin List of the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung in Germany for their work developing a tool for building molecules.

For the second day in a row, a Princeton professor was awarded a Nobel Prize. On Tuesday, Princeton University Professor Syukuro Manabe shared the Nobel Prize in physics with two other scientists for his groundbreaking work on climate change modeling.

“Building molecules is a difficult art. Benjamin List and David MacMillan are awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 for their development of a precise new tool for molecular construction: organocatalysis,” reads the citation from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “This has had a great impact on pharmaceutical research, and has made chemistry greener.”

The chemistry prize was announced on Wednesday. The pair will split the award of $1.1 million.

“I am shocked and stunned and overjoyed,” MacMillan said of the award in a university statement. “It was funny because I got some texts from people in Sweden really early this morning and I thought they were pranking me so I went back to sleep. Then my phone starting going crazy.”

“What we care about is trying to invent chemistry that has an impact on society and can do some good, and I am thrilled to have a part in that,” MacMillan said in a statement provided by Princeton University. “Organocatalysis was a pretty simple idea that really sparked a lot of different research, and the part we’re just so proud of is that you don’t have to have huge amounts of equipment and huge amounts of money to do fine things in chemistry.”

Many research areas and industries are dependent on chemists’ ability to construct molecules. “This work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions, without becoming part of the final product. For example, catalysts in cars transform toxic substances in exhaust fumes to harmless molecules. Our bodies also contain thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which chisel out the molecules necessary for life,” reads a statement from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “Catalysts are thus fundamental tools for chemists, but researchers long believed that there were, in principle, just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes. Benjamin List and David MacMillan are awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 because in 2000 they, independent of each other, developed a third type of catalysis. It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and builds upon small organic molecules.”

Organic catalysts can be used to drive many chemical reactions. Using these reactions, researchers can more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that can capture light in solar cells.

“This concept for catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” said Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, in a written statement.

MacMillan was born in 1968 in Scotland and received his doctorate in organic chemistry in 1996 from the University of California, Irvine. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology before coming to Princeton in 2006. He is a scientific consultant for Pfizer, UCB, Takeda, Biogen, Constellation Pharmaceuticals, Gilead Pharmaceuticals, Amgen Pharmaceuticals, Merck Research Laboratories, Johnson & Johnson, and Abbvie Research Laboratories. He has also founded three companies of his own: Chiromics in Princeton, PennPhD in Pennsburg, Pa., and DexterityPharma in New Jersey.

In addition to his work on asymmetric organocatalysis, MacMillan is also a leader in the field of photoredox catalysis, which uses ordinary, visible light to break and rejoin atomic bonds one electron at a time.

“Dave is the most innovative, progressive, and impactful investigator currently working in the area of synthetic organic chemistry,” said Greg Scholes, chair of the Princeton University Department of Chemistry, in a written statement. “Over the past 18 years, he has created two large and active fields of research: asymmetric organocatalysis and photoredox catalysis. His accomplishments over this period of time are unrivaled, and we are beyond thrilled.”


  1. So happy for Mr MacMillan. He is such a nice and generous man. He a customer at my restaurant in Princeton.So happy for him and his family

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