Absinthe to Perfume: Life of an Interdisciplinary Chemist

Clarke Knight ’14
Contributing Writer

To honor Professor Lâle Burk’s retirement and 50 years in the Smith College chemistry department, the Mortimer Rare Book Room, along with curator Signe Dahlberg-Wright ’14, has put together an exhibition of rare books that unite Burk’s passion for chemistry, art, history and botany. Like the priceless texts displayed, Burk is a treasure to the chemistry department and to Smith College, and will be greatly missed upon her retirement.

As a senior lecturer, Burk leaves a legacy as an interdisciplinary chemist, and the exhibit is a fitting tribute to her liberal arts spirit. Available until May 27 in Ford Hall, the exhibition, titled “The Chemist in the Garden: Origins of Natural Products,” presents a collection of books from the Mortimer Rare Book Room that exemplify early medicinal and botanical studies.

Chemistry major and history of science and technology minor Dahlberg-Wright began the research that culminated in the exhibition over a year ago with Burk as her adviser.

“Because Professor Burk has spent her career studying the synthesis of natural products, which is grounded in thousands of years of studying the medicinal effects of plants, the exhibit[ion] was a perfect way to celebrate her contribution to the Smith science program,” said Dahlberg-Wright.

Some of the oldest texts in the exhibition describe pharmacological flora: the medicinal and recreational uses of plants like Cannibas sativa are depicted in Leonhard Fuchs’ 1549 field guide. Other publications demonstrate the transition from stylized plant drawings to realistic botanical illustrations, as shown in the three volumes of Otto Brunfels’ 1537 work.

“I think as science students we tend to laugh off alternative medicine and herbal treatments without realizing that it’s exactly this sort of experimentation with plants that led us to many of our current medicinal breakthroughs,” said Dahlberg-Wright.

Most importantly, the rare books provide a context for the transition from alchemy to chemistry, herbal studies to botany, and humble experimentation to the lofty scientific pursuits of modern pharmacology.

“The scientific method might facilitate objectivity, but science itself does not exist in a vacuum. It has ethical, historical and political implications that go far beyond what we usually learn in our science classes,” said Dahlberg-Wright.

Burk has always understood the importance of art and history in the context of the sciences – her research ranged from the chemistry and culture of absinthe to the stereostructure of natural products like bisabolene trihydrochloride. One of her courses, “The Chemistry of Art Objects,” is museum-based and taught with David Dempsey from the Art Museum. Students learn about interdisciplinary topics such as the chemistry of photography. Among her other courses is a first-year seminar focused on perfume, a class that links the science of scent to the artistry and historical uses of fragrant plants.

Burk’s interdisciplinary interests can be traced back to her collegiate years. Originally trained as a pianist, Burk switched from music to chemistry after an inspiring inorganic chemistry class she took as a student of the American College in Istanbul, Turkey.

“We had to identify unknown transition metals and the colors were magical,” said Burk. “I thought, this is something I could do for a long time, be in the lab. And the logic of organic chemistry was beautiful.”

At 19, Burk left her native Turkey to pursue a Masters degree in chemistry at Smith. During her tenure, she completed a Masters and PhD in chemistry, met her husband, retired biology department faculty member C. John Burk, raised two sons and nurtured countless budding Smith chemists.

According to Professor of Chemistry Kate Queeney, Burk has made a lasting impression on the department, especially in terms of integrating a liberal arts spirit into the chemistry curriculum.

“Besides her scholarly interests and personality, a huge legacy Lâle’s leaving is chemistry’s connection to the art department and the museum, which we are committed to continuing and developing further,” said Queeney. “I don’t know we would have that without Lâle’s efforts.”

Chemistry professor and fellow colleague since 1982 Bob Linck called Burk “the resident historian of the chemistry department.” Both Linck and Queeney noted that Burk’s course on bio-organic chemistry was one of the most popular chemistry electives ever offered, recalling that students lined-up to take her electives or lab section. Queeney believes her popularity is due to her infectious positive attitude.

“She just loves, loves chemistry. If you get her talking about chemistry, you can see it,” she said. Queeney also believes that Burk has been a central matriarch of the department as a voice of reason.

“Lâle reminds us that we love what we are doing. She makes coming to work fun,” said Queeney.

Over her 40 years as a faculty member, Burk has noticed many changes at Smith, such as increased enrollment and an increase in the number of female faculty – Burk was the only woman in the chemistry department for a time – but maintains that student quality has remained high.

“Students have always been attentive, interested, serious and incredibly rewarding to teach. That has been a constant,” she said. “I don’t feel old when I talk to my colleagues now in the department. There are also many more female colleagues, and the department is fabulous; no frictions here.”

When asked what she will miss the most upon her retirement, Burk states, “Oh, everything. The faculty are good teachers, no question – but as people, they are fabulous.”

Despite retirement, both Burk and her husband will remain vibrant members of the Smith community in years to come. Though she will not be teaching next fall, she will continue her research and remain on campus, to the delight of many. Ever the interdisciplinary academic, Burk said, “I will work on some historical projects, complete some unfinished chemistry projects and practice my piano.”

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