Martin Semmelhack was born (11/19/1941) and grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin. He attended the University of Wisconsin (1959-1963) where he was first introduced into organic chemistry research through an undergraduate project in organic photochemistry under Professor Howard Zimmerman. In fall of 1963, he began doctoral research with Professor E. J. Corey at Harvard University in the then-new field of organotransition metal reagents applied in organic synthesis. He left Harvard in spring, 1967, to take up a postdoctoral position as NIH fellow with Professor William S. Johnson at Stanford University. With a team under Johnson, he completed the first synthesis of a natural steroid using the polyolefin cyclization strategy.
In the fall of 1968, he began his independent research work as assistant professor at Cornell University. The theme is organic synthesis as a tool, and the projects include efforts to hone the tools (new methodology) and apply the tools (targeted organic synthesis). His early work involved the development of organo-nickel coupling reactions and nucleophile addition to metal-activated aromatic rings, including both mechanistic work and applications in the synthesis of natural products. In a quite unrelated effort, his group prepared spiro[4.4]nonatetraene, one of the first test cases for the subtle effects of spiroconjugation and an example of organic synthesis in the exploration of a basic issue of bonding theory. He was promoted to associate professor in 1973 and full professor in 1977.
In 1978, he moved his research group to Princeton University and continued to expand the synthesis applications of nucleophile addition to metal-activated polyenes, with arene-chromium complexes and 1,3-diene-iron complexes. The striking benzannulation reaction of carbene-chromium complexes became a focus of his work in the early 1980s including the first intramolecular example in the synthesis of deoxyfrenolicin, a naphthoquinone antibiotic. The deoxyfrenolicin problem was simplified by the development of intramolecular alkoxycarbonylation catalyzed by Pd(II), and this observation was developed into a general tool for tetrahydrofuran and tetrahydropyran formation. An interest in the use of electrochemistry in synthesis methodology began with a set of protecting group protocols for selective deprotection with electro-reduction. It was expanded to include electro-catalytic oxidation methods using a nitrosonium ion derived from TEMPO. Recent research interests have continued some of these themes and opened new areas, and are summarized under Research Areas.
Semmelhack has served on the editorial board of the Journal of Organic Chemistry, Organometallics, Organic Reactions, and Organic Synthesis (editor of vol 62), and edited volume IV of Comprehensive Organic Synthesis. He served on the Executive Committee of the Organic Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society and as Chair of the Organic Division in 1988. He is co-author of about 150 publications and has received the Camille and Henry Dreyfuss Fellowship, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1978). He spent the years 1988-1990 as Consulting Director of Chemistry at the American Cyanamid Medical Research Division.