Gordon Gribble on 48 Years at Dartmouth

Gordon W. Gribble, The Dartmouth Professor of Chemistry, is the College's most senior faculty member.

Gordon W. Gribble, The Dartmouth Professor of Chemistry, is the College’s most senior faculty member.

In continuation of our series on Dartmouth’s most senior faculty, administrators, and staff, The Review sat down with chemistry professor Gordon Gribble to discuss his tenure at Dartmouth.

The Dartmouth Review: We wanted to speak to you because you are, very impressively, the most senior faculty member at the College.

Gordon Gribble (GG): They couldn’t get rid of me; I’ve been here since 1968. I’ll be beginning my forty-ninth year in April.

TDR: So give us a bird’s-eye view of what you’ve accomplished at Dartmouth, what your research has focused on, the classes and students that you’ve taught, etc.

GG: My research has focused on a range of topics in organic chemistry: natural product synthesis, reaction mechanisms. I have a strong interest in naturally occurring organohalogen compounds. I’ve written two books on those covering over 5,000 compounds—many of which Greenpeace at one point said nature would never make. In terms of teaching I’ve taught pre-med organic chemistry and the honors organic chemistry sequence. More recently, I’ve taught one half of our summer course on environmental chemistry, in which I talk about carcinogens, chemical warfare, pesticides, and other pollutants that are found in the environment.

I’ve tried to add up the number of students I’ve taught, but it’s probably in the thousands. I do know that when I broke my leg back in 1982, the doctor who put the hard cast on my leg after I was hiking in Lafayette with my son was a student I had in my course some seven years previously. And he happened to have gotten a C in my pre-med organic course. He and I both remembered that as he’s putting the hard plaster cast on my leg: “Hope it’s not to tight, Professor Gribble.” He made it as a doctor, even though he didn’t succeed in my course. Recently, I’ve had a few other doctors who have taken courses with me over the years. So it’s always nice to see them come back, and see that they’ve succeeded in the profession.

Professor Gribble

Professor Gribble

TDR: In terms of publications, you said that you recently published a book and I know that you have multiple papers?

GG: I’ve published four books, two by myself and two with a co-author. A fifth book is going to come out this August dealing with indole ring synthesis, and this a book for which I signed a contract in 2006 but wasn’t able to really get started on until 2013. That is now finished—just today I finished the page proofs. There are eighty-nine chapters and it it’ll be about 700 pages. It’s the first book to really document all the ways that make an indole ring. An indole ring is an organic compound; it’s in heterocyclen, it’s in seratonin, it’s in all of our protein and many pharmaceuticals.

I’ve also published about 370 papers over the years. I have a smaller research group now; I’m down to one post-doc, two undergraduates, and a shared graduate student. We’re working now on a number of exciting projects involving a compound called bis-acridine, which intercalates DNA. It’s active the glioblastoma, which is the type of tumor that killed Ted Kennedy and killed Paul Veale, who was a faculty member here in the Chemistry department. Right now we’re trying to organize a screen in San Francisco, with a former colleague who will implant the human glioblastoma into mice and seeing how effective our compound is against it.

The other exciting result that ended disappointingly was our synthetic triterpenoid. That compound was first synthesized in 1998, and that went through Phase 1 trials with great success in cancer patients and patients with damaged kidneys. Unfortunately, in the Phase 3 trials the dose was modified to the point that we had toxicity in the drug group over the placebo group. This was not a test administered within Dartmouth, it was an outside group. So we’re hoping now that a newer trial run here will be the first drug to treat chronic kidney disease.

TDR: The goal is to hit 400 papers, correct?

GG: I’m not sure if the goal is to make it there. But I’m at 370, so if I’m averaging maybe fifteen per year it’s feasible. But I have a lot of other things that I’d like to do during my retirement. I’ve been a wine maker since 1978, and I’ve been trying to grow grapes in Norwich, Vermont for a long time. We got a lot of foliage on our thirty vines, but not much fruit. In fact, on one batch of Cayuga vines I got one grape—not a cluster, just a single grape—on six vines. I recall plucking the grape of the vine and popping it in my mouth at the time. But over the years making wine with the grapes from Norwich, my total product amounted to probably two or three gallons in total. So now I buy grapes from California through a co-op in New Hampshire, and my son and I drive them back to Norwich where I make the wine.

The other interest I have has to do with a different war, World War II and the Battle of Iwo Jima. It turns out there was a Dartmouth undergrad in the Class of 1932 who graduated, joined the Marines, and rose to the rank of captain. He was on Iwo Jima in charge of 150 men, and landed with the Second Assault team on February 19, 1945. His companion unit was the one that actually climbed Suribachi and planted the famous flag. His name was Aaron G. Wilkins, and I learned about him when I read a book called Flags of Our Fathers, which was written by a retired general whose best friend happened to have been Captain Wilkins. In the course of reading that book, there was a page where the general described Wilkins as a “fun-loving Dartmouth grad,” so when I read that I had to find out more about him. I went to Rauner library to dig through the archives, and I learned quite a bit about him. I was able to identify the fact that he was born in Denver and that he came to Dartmouth as a history major, though of course World War II interrupted that. He had one sister who actually died shortly before I was able to track down her two children, the niece and nephew of Captain Wilkins. The niece lives in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the nephew is a math professor at Skidmore College. I met him, and he was able to give me letters and pictures from Iwo Jima, and I wrote a chapter in a book called Dartmouth at War, which is a compilation of exploits of members of the Class of 1942 who served. Unfortunately, Wilkins was killed on Iwo Jima about twelve days after he landed, and he got the Silver Star for that. He was leading his men, exploring for Japanese positions on Hill 362, one of the more difficult positions that Marines encountered on the island. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and I had the chance to see his marker.

One of the letters about Captain Wilkins that really stands out said “I saw Captain Wilkins standing on a rock, visibly wounded, directing his men.” That, to me, says it all; he was an amazing man. Unfortunately, he was killed when was recently twenty-two or so.

TDR: What are your thoughts on how Dartmouth has changed during your time here?

GG: Well the big change was in 1972 when we went co-ed. And we’ve had a number of presidents of course: McLaughlin, Kemeny, and so on. I tend not to have gotten too involved in politics or committee work. I’ve served on committees when I’ve been asked, but I don’t volunteer because my teaching and my research truly take priority. So, the new chemistry building built in 1991 was tremendous. Steele Hall was built in 1920 for a faculty of six, without a graduate program. We had had a faculty of eighteen with a graduate program in 1968 when I first came, so we needed a new building, which we have now.

TDR: How do you see the institution moving forward over time? The College has had a couple years of bad press, but how do you think Dartmouth will do in the coming years?

GG: I would like to see it do well. You’re right about the bad press, both regarding alcohol and sexual harassment issues. Hopefully that will dissipate, and I think it will. I know the College has taken a strong stance against alcohol abuse, underage drinking, and fraternities. I guess SAE has now been closed down, which is unfortunate, but I guess it had to be.

TDR: With all the change you’ve seen in the Greek system, do you have any opinion of the system in general.

GG: When I was in College I lived in a boarding house for two years, and then the other two years I commuted from home actually. That was in San Francisco when I went to Berkeley. So I never lived in a fraternity, I can’t really comment about whether it’s good or bad. Because so many colleges have fraternities and sororities I always assume that they do play a role of course. In fact, Captain Wilkins was a member of Sigma Nu when he was here in the ‘40s. I guess I would hate to see fraternities go as a group, but I don’t think that will happen.

TDR: One last question: could you talk more about your expertise in chemical warfare?

GG: I became interested back in 1970, when the army discovered some leaky nerve gas rockets in Utah. Even though the rockets were encased in concrete, the rockets were leaking the sarin nerve agent such that they had to dispose of them. So they proposed dumping the rockets into the ocean off the coast of New Jersey. They loaded these rockets, some sixty-seven tons, onto train cars which traveled across the country. The public became aware of it and was outraged, but it was the best thing to do. The army said that when the rockets ruptured in the ocean, the nerve agents would instantly hydrolyze. I did some calculations based on the temperature of the water, the pH, and the rate of decomposition of sarin, and my calculations suggested that it would take about six weeks for the chemicals to hydrolyze. But having done all of that, the best way at the time to get rid of those rockets was to dump them in the ocean. So after that, I became very interested in chemical warfare and toxicity in general, so I address it in my courses as well. I’ve been following chemical warfare—for example, sarin has been used by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, along with things like mustard gas and chlorine as well. I’ve made a kind of hobby out of understanding what these agents are, how they’re made, and what their properties are.

TDR: And you’ve consulted the government on this?

GG: I did serve on a committee to determine this country’s capability to detect chemical warfare agents. Our ability at that time was really pretty crude. The sensors that we were using were really no more than fancy pH paper, but things have changed now.

TDR: Thank you so much for speaking with us, it was a pleasure.

GG: Likewise, thank you so much.