A special trip to Berlin

Benjamin List receives the Honorary Doctorate of the Freie Universität Berlin

October 26, 2023

Benjamin List, director at the Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung and winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, earned his chemistry degree at Freie Universität zu Berlin. Now his alma mater has awarded him an honorary doctorate.

If it had been up to him, Benjamin List would have had a doctorate from Freie Universität zu Berlin in his pocket long ago. But his supervisor, Johann Mulzer, had moved to the University of Frankfurt at that time - and so Benjamin List had to complete his doctoral studies on the Main, and not on the Spree. Now, with the award of an honorary doctorate at his alma mater, his dream has finally come true.

It was not without reason that the honorary ceremony for Benjamin List coincided with the matriculation of new students in chemistry, biology and pharmacy. "We think that Benjamin List is an outstanding example of where curiosity and the will to create can lead," emphasized Prof. Günter Ziegler, President of the FU, in his welcoming speech. This is the most important event of the year, added Prof. Beate Paulus, chemist and dean of the department.

Prof. Mathias Christmann, an organic chemist at FU, acknowledged in his laudatio that Benjamin List’s life could, of course, not be seen as a blueprint for all students. "But Ben is an inspiration. He shows us and the world what is possible with an education in the German school and university system," Christmann said.

“Not a scientific one-hit wonder”

"Talent hits a target that no one else can hit; genius hits a target that no one else can see." Christmann used this quote from philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to emphasize the importance of List's discovery of asymmetric organocatalysis. Decades earlier, chemists had demonstrated the catalytic effectiveness of the amino acid proline, but had not recognized the general concept behind it. "And Ben has made it abundantly clear since that discovery that he is not a scientific one-hit wonder," said Christmann, who singled out "asymmetric counteranion directed catalysis" (ACDC) as an example, as well as List’s work with Brønsted acids.

In his entertaining lecture, List succeeded not only in giving the young students a first taste of their training in organic chemistry, but also in stimulating their joy in research. He had always been a "blue-eyed optimist" - a characteristic he has retained to this day. Particularly for a scientist work-life can take a lot of endurance. In his case, curiosity, optimism, creativity and a great team were the catalysts of his career, List says.

The Frankfurt native made no secret of his love for the German capital, and in particular for the FU campus: "I have always felt very comfortable in Dahlem," Benjamin List revealed. The university was already great back then - excellent even before the German Excellence Initiative came along. Therefore, he was particularly pleased with one of the gifts presented to him on his honorary doctorate: a bright yellow building block of the distinctive towers of his institute - a truly extraordinary souvenir.

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