University of Rochester

Marshall D. Gates, Chemist to First Synthesize Morphine, Dies

October 3, 2003

Marshall D. Gates, Jr., known around the world as the first person to synthesize morphine in the laboratory, died Oct. 1 at his Pittsford (N.Y.) home. A scholar and teacher at the University of Rochester since 1949, Professor Gates was 88.

His 1952 breakthrough, considered a masterpiece of organic chemistry, established the Department of Chemistry at the University as one of the leading centers in the field, and was the threshold to Professor Gates' larger search for a painkiller that would mimic morphine's ability to mask severe pain but would not be addictive. He created hundreds of compounds and was awarded 13 patents.

To the national and international chemistry community, his leadership was recognized through his role as assistant editor and then editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Chemical Society from 1949 to 1969. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the New York Academy of Science, Professor Gates had a reputation at Rochester as an outstanding teacher, and received the University's highest undergraduate teaching award in 1967.

During World War II, the search to synthesize morphine was intense among a number of elite chemists in the United States and Britain. "Ultimately, Gates' achievement was not only to prepare it by synthesis, but confirm the structure of the molecule," said Robert K. Boeckman, Jr., chairman of the Department of Chemistry. Work by Gates paved the way for further development of nonaddictive derivatives and an entire approach to synthesizing the complex compounds known as alkaloids.

Born in Boyne City, Mich., in 1915, Marshall DeMotte Gates, Jr. received a bachelor's degree from Rice University, and his master's and doctoral degrees in chemistry from Harvard University. He and his wife, the former Martha L. Meyer, settled at Bryn Mawr College in 1941 where he taught and also did work for the National Defense Research Council from 1943 to 1946.

At Bryn Mawr, Professor Gates began his studies on the structure of morphine, and in 1949 came to the University of Rochester. In 1952, at age 35, he and co-worker Gilg Tschudi announced the synthesis of the compound, which was recognized as extraordinary by organic chemists worldwide. Though he gained much acclaim for that discovery and other accomplishments, colleagues and family described him as a modest man who shunned the attention.

Personally, he was known for athletic pursuits as a sailor and skier. He kept at the craft of glassblowing, making many of his instruments for laboratory use, built both model and small wooden sailboats, and enjoyed a weekly poker game for more than 35 years.

Professor Gates was recognized as the C. F. Houghton Professor of Chemistry in 1968, and when he retired in 1981 on his 65th birthday, he became professor emeritus. In the intervening years, he continued his research and strong connections to the faculty and students in the department.

Survivors include his wife Martha; sons Christopher (and Mary Anne) Gates and Marshall D. Gates, 3rd; daughters Kate MacMillan and Virginia (and Robert) Searl; eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, all of the Rochester area.

An event to announce a University endowed chair in honor of Professor Gates will go on as planned Oct. 10. Professor Boeckman will be the first holder of the professorship. "My father had been thrilled about the chair," said his daughter, Virginia Searl. "He thought Bob Boeckman was the perfect person for it."

Friends can call at the family home at 41 West Brook Road in Pittsford from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17.