October 23, 2008
Vol. 28 No. 3

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    Yang discovered new type of luminescence–chemical light emission

    Professor in Chemistry Nien-chu Yang, who studied organic photochemistry, the reactions induced by light in organic compounds, died Thursday, Oct. 2. Yang, a longtime resident of Hyde Park, was 80.

    In 1987, Yang’s discovery of a new type of chemical luminescence–chemical light emission— made headlines. This type of luminescence is responsible for the light of fireflies, predator fish and in the deep sea, and some micro-organisms. But until Yang’s discovery, luminescing chemicals were unstable or short-lived, making them difficult to study.

    Yang’s collaborator on the discovery was Hsi-jiang Yang (no relation), who, in 1982, had become one of the first students admitted to the United States from the People’s Republic of China.

    During his career, Yang also conducted research on compounds associated with the growth or inhibition of cancer and with the electronic characteristics of organic substances.

    Yang excelled as a teacher as well, having received the University’s Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the AMOCO Prize for Distinguished Contribution to Undergraduate teaching. After receiving the Quantrell Award in 1992, Yang recalled one of his teaching inspirations.

    “On a blistering hot summer day, as I walked by a classroom in the Jones Laboratory, I saw Professor Harold C. Urey, the Nobel laureate, teaching Chemistry 105, the first course in freshman chemistry, shortly before his retirement from the University of Chicago,” Yang said. “It made me feel that there is a tradition of college teaching in the Department of Chemistry, regardless of the instructor’s distinction and age.”

    Yang was born in Shanghai, China, on May 1, 1928. He received his B.S. degree in chemistry from St. John’s University in Shanghai in 1948 and then came to Chicago as a graduate student in chemistry.

    After completing his Ph.D. under Morris Karasch at Chicago in 1952, Yang received postdoctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Burge Büchi and at Harvard University with Robert Woodward.

    Yang returned to Chicago as a member of the chemistry faculty in 1956. He progressed through the professorial ranks and was named the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in 1992. He retired as a Professor Emeritus in 2000.

    “N.C. Yang was an important member of our department for nearly half of its history,” said Michael Hopkins, Professor and Chairman of Chemistry. “His tireless devotion to research, teaching and the University were legendary, and his deep concern for our students—to whom he gave freely of his time and resources—was an inspiration. He will be deeply missed.”

    Yang’s wife Ding-Djung, his scientific collaborator for many years, survives him. Ding-Djung received her Ph.D. in chemistry under John Sheehan from MIT and is a Senior Research Associate in Chemistry at the University.

    Yang was a fellow of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

    Yang’s additional honors included the Gregory and Freda Halpern Prize in Photochemistry from the New York Academy of Sciences. He also was an Academician of the Academia Sinica, the highest academic institution of the Republic of China, Taiwan, and was one of three inaugural scientific fellows of the Inter-American Photochemical Society.

    In addition to his wife, Yang’s children Charles, Julia Ann and Morris, as well as three grandsons survive him. Private funeral services were held, and a public memorial service is being planned.