Philip Coppens


Published June 23, 2017

headshot of Philip Coppens.

Philip Coppens

Philip Coppens, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Chemistry, died June 21. He was 86.

A memorial service is being planned at UB. Details will be announced as they become available.

Coppens was a pioneer in crystallography, in which scientists study crystals of molecules to determine their structure and function. Crystallography has been responsible for major advances in the past century, from development of new drugs designed to block molecules involved in disease to development of cutting-edge new materials with custom-designed properties.

A UB faculty member since 1968, Coppens officially retired last fall, but has maintained a lab at UB, a postdoctoral researcher and grant funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. Although he and his wife had moved away from Western New York, he had returned to UB this week for a short visit.

“On behalf of the entire University at Buffalo community, I want to extend my heartfelt condolences to Professor Coppens’ family,” President Satish K. Tripathi said.

“A renowned scholar, mentor and teacher, Professor Coppens dedicated nearly five decades of his distinguished career to UB — a career that inspired colleagues and students alike to reach higher in their pursuits,” Tripathi said.

“When I had the privilege of speaking at the UB symposium held in his honor last October, I was reminded once again of his groundbreaking scholarship, which led to numerous discoveries that have profoundly influenced our understanding of chemistry and chemical structures, and enhanced UB’s reputation as a center for crystallographic research,” he said.

“One could not ask for more from a faculty member in terms of scholarship, creativity and professional excellence, and Professor Coppens will always be remembered for serving his university, and his profession, with great distinction.”

“Philip was a giant in his field and pioneered the technique of time-resolved X-ray crystallography, which has become a major area in X-ray science,” said David Watson, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry. “He was renowned for promoting the discipline, organizing international meetings and mentoring younger colleagues in his field. Philip taught countless students and researchers at UB, and mentored many faculty, myself included. Philip had a dry wit and a great sense of humor. He will be missed by many at UB and around the world.”

Robin G. Schulze, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, extended the college’s deepest condolences to Coppens’ family, friends and colleagues. “His many contributions to chemistry and the example he set for his peers at UB will be greatly missed,” she said.

Coppens’ career was marked by many prestigious honors. In 2005, he received the International Union of Crystallography’s Ewald Prize for outstanding contributions to the field, and in 2011 he was named a fellow of the American Crystallographic Association. He also was recognized by the National Science Foundation, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the National Science Council of the Republic of China, and received the Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Nancy, the highest French national university honor for foreign scholars.

In 2014, Chemical & Engineering News, the magazine of the American Chemical Society, chose the nitroprusside ion, whose light-induced modifications Coppens’ team described in 1994, as one of the top 10 molecular structures ever solved. At a UB symposium held last fall celebrating Coppens upon his retirement — and which attracted colleagues and friends from all over the world — he was presented with a 3-D printed model of the molecule as a gift.

Coppens was one of the first researchers in the world to use X-ray diffraction to study the bonds connecting atoms and molecules inside crystals. He coined the word “photocrystallography” to describe a technique he developed that uses laser pulses timed to coincide with X-ray pulses to reveal the structure of highly reactive molecules in transient states. That research was cited by the publication Chemical Communications as one of its “hot papers.”

Born in 1930 in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, Coppens earned his doctorate in 1960 from the University of Amsterdam at a time when crystallography was an emerging field. He conducted research at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he was principal investigator for the SUNY beamline at the National Synchrotron Light Source.

In a memoir he wrote for the American Crystallographic Association, Coppens described why he found this new field so compelling. “I was attracted by the beauty of crystals and their periodic arrangement, the mathematical aspects and the fact that crystallography — unlike some other physical methods — could produce unambiguous results.”

A funeral service and burial will take place in Wilmington, Delaware on Sunday. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Doctors Without Borders or Yad Sarah.