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In Memoriam: Richard Sundberg, Influential Researcher, Beloved Teacher of Chemistry

Dec 07, 2021 |
Richard Sundberg co-wrote what is considered the preeminent graduate textbook in organic chemistry and mentored 38 Ph.D. and master’s candidates during three decades at the University.
Tom Coghill

The University of Virginia’s Department of Chemistry and the wider community of organic chemistry researchers are mourning the recent death of retired professor Richard J. “Dick” Sundberg. An admired teacher and mentor to 38 Ph.D. and master’s candidates, Sundberg made important research contributions in several areas, including the development of antitumor compounds and anti-parasitic agents.

 

Sundberg died Nov. 1 in Hickory, North Carolina, after a period of declining health. He was 83. 

The author of nearly 100 research articles and review chapters over the course of his career at UVA, Sundberg co-wrote what is considered the preeminent graduate textbook in organic chemistry, “Advanced Organic Chemistry,” revising it through five editions. Sundberg’s other books included “The Chemistry of Indoles” (1970), and “Indoles, Best Synthetic Methods” (1996).

He was recruited to UVA in 1964, after serving two years as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps. Sundberg earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. One of his UVA chemistry colleagues, professor emeritus Russell Grimes, who was a graduate school colleague of Sundberg’s at Minnesota, said that Sundberg’s arrival served as one of a string of successful recruitments at that time of talented new faculty weighing offers from other top schools.

“A couple of senior faculty members thought that because Dick already had several offers from much bigger schools, he would be unlikely to come to UVA, and therefore it would be a waste of time to make him an offer,” said Grimes, who arrived at UVA a year earlier. “Fortunately, we did anyway.”

In addition to being a productive researcher and excellent teacher and mentor whose organic chemistry students found to be rigorous but patient, Sundberg was a dedicated administrator. His service to the University of Virginia included terms as chair of the Department of Chemistry and as associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. After his May 2016 retirement and appointment as professor emeritus, he continued to teach. In 2017, he published his fourth book, “The Chemical Century: Molecular Manipulation and Its Impact on the 20th Century.”

Born Jan. 6, 1938, Sundberg grew up on a farm near Linn Grove, Iowa, the eldest of four surviving children. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, with highest distinction, from the University of Iowa in 1959; and, as a distinguished military graduate of the Army ROTC, received a commission as a second lieutenant. Sundberg completed his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1962 at the University of Minnesota, which honored him as a Distinguished Alumnus in 2001. 

In 1961, he married Lorna Lou Swift, who went on to make her own substantial impact to the UVA community during the decades they lived in Charlottesville. Lorna Sundberg, who died in 2001, joined the University’s International Center in 1981 as its program coordinator. During her nearly 20 years leading the center – since renamed the Lorna Sundberg International Center – she was instrumental in its development as an active cultural center and welcoming place for international members of the UVA and local communities.

Richard Sundberg spent a year at Stanford University as postdoctoral fellow in 1971. He spent another yearlong sabbatical, in 1978, in France, as a Fulbright Scholar. The Sundbergs’ daughters, the Rev. Kelly Sundberg Seaman and Jennifer Deal, are both graduate school alumni of UVA. Richard Sundberg had relocated to North Carolina in May 2021 to be closer to Deal and her family. 

Among his proudest accomplishments, Sundberg’s family said, were his relationships with the students whose Ph.D. and master’s theses he directed. Sundberg remained in touch with many of his former students throughout his career and continued to hear from them during his illness.

A memorial service will be livestreamed from Charlottesville’s St. Mark Lutheran Church, on Dec. 13 at 3 p.m. Details will be available at https://stmarklutheran.org. A committal service will be held in Iowa in the spring.

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