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Harry King reflects on changes in his field, as colleagues and former students salute him
Story by Jim Bisco; photo by Douglas Levere, BA ’89
He has played an active part in the evolution of the field of computational chemistry. He developed what is considered to be one of the seminal papers in the field of quantum chemistry. He is internationally recognized as a leader in molecular electronic structure computation, widely used in chemistry, material science, chemical engineering and rational drug design. He has inspired several generations of students and collaborators. Now, after 48 years in UB’s Department of Chemistry, Professor Harry F. King has decided to call it a day.
His retirement and coinciding 80th birthday were marked May 3 with a symposium on quantum chemistry held in his honor at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, and a celebration banquet that evening at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. The event attracted distinguished scholars in the field–alumni and research partners—from across the country and around the world, a testament to King’s influence and the regard in which he is held.
Harry King in 1988 with the technology of the day lurking in the background.Photo: UB Archives
The fireworks of the day ran contrary to his low–key, unassuming nature, yet were symbolic of the explosive chemical reactions that first captured his fancy as a youngster growing up in rural East Liverpool, Ohio. Inspired by his engineer father, King studied chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and Cambridge under some of the great names in the science, including Donald Hornig, who played a key role in the Manhattan Project, and Frank Boys, who laid the foundations of modern quantum chemistry.
And so, King says he finally became a quantum chemist and was able to participate in the development of an area of science “which, during my lifetime, has been transformed from a useless academic exercise to one of the most useful practical tools available today for solving a vast range of chemical problems.”
He went from the days of the slide rule and the Marchant calculator to the ORDVAC, ILLIAC and IBM 650 early computers that used punched cards, and the EDSAC at Cambridge with its paper tape. “On occasion, the center of a tape roll would fall out during handling and spiral to the floor. If it wasn’t raining, one could then hold one end firmly while throwing the tape out the second-story window to uncoil,” he recalls with his typical humor.
In 1962, King was a postdoc at the University of Illinois, looking for his first faculty job when quantum chemist Robert Parr told him that “Buffalo recently became a state university and was hiring a lot of people.” This was the year the private UB merged with the State University of New York system, and King readily applied to the new SUNY school. “Gordon Harris, chemistry department chairman, called to invite me for an interview and asked if there were any particular faculty members whom I would like to meet during my visit,” he recalls. “I hadn’t done my homework, so I replied ‘Richard Stanton,’ that being the only name I knew. Later, I learned that Stanton was at Canisius College, not UB. Somehow I got the job anyway and brought my young family to Buffalo.
“He really enjoyed being a professor, not only because he loved his research, but because he really liked getting newcomers to appreciate the field.”Ioana Sirbu, PhD ’02
“Those were good days in the early ’60s,” he continues. “I was quite happy. We were in Acheson Hall on the South Campus, a cinder–block building with doors that never worked very well. A thousand students would come in for freshman chemistry every day, and in the wintertime the snow would keep the doors from opening and closing properly.” He settled in, quickly grew to like the area, bought a house within walking distance of the campus and proceeded to engage students in quantum chemistry.
“The university is a very different place today than it was in 1962,” King observes. “The chemistry department was about a third of the size that it is now. UB is much more of a major research university now than it was in the 1960s. Medicinal chemistry used to be a separate department. Now, they’ve combined medicinal chemistry with organic chemistry and so there’s a big push in that field.
“When you hire an assistant professor today, you give them a lot of money to set up a lab or hire postdocs, a light teaching load, and they’re supposed to generate a lot of papers and become famous quickly,” he says. “In those days, it was just the opposite. They bought a few books I had wanted and that was it. I taught two courses every semester right from the beginning, and they were very patient for me to publish papers. It was an entirely different world a half–century ago.”
While King’s published work may not be voluminous, the quality of it is highly regarded. “Anytime Harry publishes something, people take notice,” says Thomas R. Furlani, PhD ’85, director of UB’s Center for Computational Research (CCR), interim associate vice president for information technology and a former student of King. “The paper that he did on the evaluation of two-electron integrals was named one of the 150 seminal papers in the field of quantum chemistry. The holy grail was to develop the numerical methods to efficiently evaluate the millions of integrals that are needed to calculate molecular properties,” Furlani explains. “Nobody had found an efficient way to do it, so Harry, along with graduate students John Rys and Michel Dupuis, worked together to develop a very efficient numerical method based on a new class of polynomials.”
King notes that although the problem has been attacked by hundreds of other scientists since, the Rys polynomial method, named after the late John Rys, PhD ’78, remains one of the most widely used methods for evaluation of molecular integrals.
Michel Dupuis, PhD ’77, associate division director, Chemical and Materials Sciences division, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, recalls that he and Rys speculated on the possibility of a joint solution for their two different projects in 1974. “Both of us explained it to Harry King, and he came back the next day and said, ‘I know how to do it.’ From then on, we worked on writing this extensive computer code and spending late nights at the computing center at the Ridge Lea campus.”
“The three of us rolled up our sleeves and programmed this thing, and I got my full professorship on the basis of that. It was probably the best piece of work I ever did,” King relates.
James W. McIver Jr., UB professor of chemistry, has collaborated with King since his arrival at UB in 1969. “He mentored me. I learned an enormous amount from him,” McIver says. “Academically, his work is really special. He’s a remarkable scientist and mathematician. His works are tours de force in new theory.”
Ioana Sirbu, PhD ’02, instructor in mathematics at State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Mo., did her undergraduate studies in pure mathematics in her native Romania before moving to UB for graduate studies in applied mathematics. King’s fortitude and dedication to students became quickly apparent. “I had to catch up on a lot of chemistry to work on some of these projects, and he spent a lot of hours patiently explaining facts to me,” Sirbu remembers. “He placed an equal emphasis on the mathematical theory, the concepts from chemistry and the computer science algorithms–very important for understanding the problem, and not very easy to find in the written literature.” Like others, Sirbu says she observed “a sharp contrast between his unassuming nature and his very deep insight into fundamental problems.”
Andrew Komornicki, PhD ’74, senior computational scientist at IBM, is another fan of King. “Harry is brilliant, disorganized and sometimes gives you the impression that he couldn’t tie his own shoelaces to save his life, but if you let him think on something, he comes up with incredible ideas,” Komornicki says. “He had a lot of patience with us as students. He would actually spend many hours explaining things and working through them. It was wonderful. He’s a very warm–hearted guy.”
When King arrived at UB, he was disappointed that the school didn’t have a good computer. “Eventually they got an IBM 7000 computer located in the basement of Goodyear dormitory. In those days, UB didn’t have a department of computer science. One of the serious questions at the time was, ‘Does there exist a sufficiently large body of knowledge about computers to constitute a science?’”
Computer science soon developed at UB, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the university obtained its first multiprocessor computer through a joint collaboration between UB Distinguished Professor Russ Miller in computer science, King and McIver in chemistry, and Furlani, who at the time was senior chemist at Calspan Advanced Technology Center. A decade later saw the beginning of CCR, now one of the world’s leading supercomputing centers, of which King is one of the five founding members.
Typically, King is quick to downplay much ado about him. “I was just one of hundreds of people, each laying his or her own little brick, and eventually there was this great edifice of quantum chemistry,” he says.
King is proud of championing the arrival in the department of Jochen Autschbach, professor, who recently submitted a joint paper with King on molecular orbitals. Autschbach considers King one of the pioneers in theoretical chemistry. “His papers are very solid. As a theoretician, he’s very elegant in his math. What he does is very, very clear and thorough. I hope he’ll still be involved.”
“He really enjoyed being a professor, not only because he loved his research, but because he really liked getting newcomers to appreciate the field,” adds Sirbu. “He seemed distracted from everything around him at times, and then he would suddenly come up with the most astute observation. I think that he noticed many more things about human nature than he liked to show.”
King will continue to reside in the Buffalo area with Enez, his wife of more than 50 years. Their daughter, Wendy, and son, David (with wife, Allison, and daughter, Lucy Rose, 8), live in California.
He plans to take advantage of his passion for hiking area trails with longtime friend and fellow quantum chemist Stanton, now retired from Canisius.
And perhaps he can be persuaded to keep his hand in the science that he helped build.
Jim Bisco is senior writer for University Communications.
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