Dr. Arthur Obermayer - 2009 Arno Heyn Book Prize Award
“I’m not a typical chemist,”
said Dr. Arthur Obermayer, the recipient of this year’s
Arno Heyn Book Award. In truth, Dr. Obermayer’s far-ranging
interests and activities are atypical of most people, both
chemists and nonchemists. The Arno Heyn award will be presented
to Dr. Obermayer at the May NESACS meeting, in recognition
of Dr. Obermayer’s significant contributions to NESACS
“I knew Arno for a number of years, and I am very pleased
to be recognized with this award,” Dr. Obermayer said.
Thanks to Dr. Obermayer’s initiative, NESACS now maintains
a detailed website, www.nesacs.org, in collaboration with
web consultant Roy Hagen, which provides details of upcoming
NESACS events. Dr. Obermayer organized the initial committee
that established the website in the mid-1990s. The website
is locally controlled by NESACS, independent of the national
ACS. This local control allows NESACS to quickly update
the website without requiring a lengthy approval process.
The key question with the website, according to Dr. Obermayer,
is who the target audience is. In his view, it should be
mainly, but not exclusively, for ACS members. Examples
of topics that may be of interest to the general public
include the control of air and water pollution, and the
National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL),
which is affiliated with Boston University.
“Some people might say that you shouldn’t get into it (the
discussion of NEIDL), because it’s political,” said Dr.
Obermayer. “but we are the right people to provide objective
technical information without taking sides.”
The establishment of the Gustavus J. Esselen Award for
Chemistry in the Public Interest was described by Dr. Obermayer
as “my most important contribution to the ACS.” This year
the award was presented at the April NESACS meeting to
Professor Stephen L. Buchwald of MIT. Dr. Obermayer was
chair of the Board of Trustees when the award was established
in memory of Gustavus Esselen, who was a synthetic organic
chemist. Instead of establishing an award in synthetic
organic chemistry, “I convinced Dr. Esselen’s son to establish
an award for chemistry in the public interest,” explained
“At the time, and today as well, chemistry and chemicals
can get a bad name,” Dr. Obermayer said. “This award should
be for someone where the public says, ‘This is great!’”
In his current role on the Esselen Award committee, Dr.
Obermayer evaluates potential candidates’ research, both
in terms of scientific merit and in the degree of public
exposure they have received. “The chemistry really should
be described in terms of its importance to the public,”
said Dr. Obermayer.
U.S. Government Policy
The Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) was
established by Congress in 1976 to encourage the development
of small, high-tech businesses. Dr. Obermayer played a
major role in the development and passage of this legislation.
“I went to testify
many times before Congress about this program and Ted Kennedy
called it my program,” Dr. Obermayer is still asked for
advice on various modifications to the program, such as
a recent discussion of whether to allow venture capital-funded
businesses to be eligible for the SBIR program.
“The problem with people in general is that they tend to
associate with people whose views are like theirs,” Dr.
Obermayer said in reference to the Israeli- Palestinian
conflict in the Middle East. “People need to learn more.”
As part of Dr. Obermayer’s efforts to educate people on
this topic, he serves on the Advisory Board of J Street,
an organization that advocates a two-state solution to
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. J Street believes that
through diplomatic, non-military means, peace in the Middle
East can be achieved.
“In 1989, I went to visit Israel, and I felt that peace
could be achieved,” said Dr. Obermayer. “I don’t give up
easily. I still believe peace is possible.
“Very often in the world, and I think it’s true here too,
it is the leaders who are seeking power, and don’t want
to compromise – and it’s the people who suffer,” Dr. Obermayer
Yet another arena in which Dr. Obermayer is heavily involved
is in providing awards to non-Jewish Germans who have made
substantial contributions to preserving Jewish history
and culture in their own local communities. The purpose
of these awards is threefold: (1) to recognize the recipients
and the importance of their work; (2) for other Germans
to realize that these people are doing important things;
and (3) so that the rest of the world will learn that Germans
have really done a commendable job in dealing with their
For example, Dr. Obermayer visited the city of Fuerth,
Germany, to try to find where his ancestors were buried.
He was foiled in his initial attempts, because at the time
of his visit all of the tombstones in the cemetery had
been piled in a corner. A woman in Fuerth then spent three
years reconstructing the cemetery and restoring the tombstones
to their proper places, through a combination of photographs,
plot plans, and genealogical work. After completing this
daunting task, the woman was able to successfully trace
Dr. Obermayer’s ancestors in Fuerth to the early 1700s.
Interested readers can read a detailed account of the activities
and history of the extended Obermayer family in a book
that was published, “The Obermayers: A History of a Jewish
Family in Germany and America, 1618-2001,” by Kenneth Libo
and Michael Feldberg. They can also check the Obermayer
family website at http://
“In conclusion, I’m not really sure how any of these activities
relate to chemistry,” Dr. Obermayer said. “But I have a
lot of interests, and I’ve been involved in a lot of significant