19 Mar 2014

First use of the term "bioinorganic"

Literature Discussion

Submitted by Joshua Telser, Roosevelt University

Thanks to information first provided to me by Prof. Brian M. Hoffman, Northwestern University, I believe that the first documented use of the term "bioinorganic chemistry" occurred at a meeting held at Virginia Tech (VPI&SU) in June, 1970. This meeting was jointly organized with Canadian researchers and was thus an international meeting.

This meeting resulted in an Advances in Chemistry Series book, which has the following URL:


The topics covered are still relevant, and include articles by many leading researchers (e.g., Harry Gray and Ronald Breslow  - to pick one each from inorganic and organic areas).

I plan on showing this TOC in my Bioinorganic class to demonstrate what the topics of interest then were, and give some historical perspective to the next generations.

Another aspect of this literature discussion is to demonstrate errors that exist in the chemical literature, in this case, of a historical rather than a quantitative (actual chemical) nature.

A statement in the following article, which is otherwise very interesting, inspired this attempt to correct the historical record:


Helena Santos, FEBS Letters Volume 586, Issue 5, 9 March 2012, Pages 476–478. "António Xavier and his contribution to the development of Bioinorganic Chemistry".

"In 1979, in collaboration with H.A.O. Hill, he [Prof. Xavier] organized a NATO-ASI conference in Tomar, Portugal, on “Metal Ions in Biology” which would become a memorable milestone in the history of Bioinorganic Chemistry. According to Robert R. Crichton, this was probably the first Bioinorganic Chemistry meeting..." [emphasis mine]

This is false, as readily demonstrated by the above description of the Virginia Tech meeting, which was nine years earlier. Moreover, the statement attributed to Prof. Crichton is totally incorrect even absent knowledge of the Va. Tech meeting.

The Portugal meeting was titled “Metal Ions in Biology” - not "Bioinorganic Chemistry" in any variant. The term “Metal Ions in Biology” had already been in use for many years (since 1962) as (first as part of) the title of the Gordon Research Conference on this topic. This can be easily seen from the GRC web site:


The history of this conference is of interest on its own, in terms of the researchers involved as chairs over the years (e.g., Prof. Richard H. Holm as Chair in 1973, who likely ensured a strong bioinorganic content). All conferences starting with 1995 have active links so that the topics over the last nearly 20 years can be examined in detail.

There was a full-blown international bioinorganic chemistry meeting that took place in Vancouver, BC Canada in June 1976, thus preceeding the Portugal meeting by three years. This Vancouver conference is sometimes referred to as "ICBIC-0", as noted by Prof. Chris Orvig, the organizer of ICBIC-11 in Vancouver on August 7-12, 2011. Hence, he called ICBIC-11 the "Jade Anniversary" (jade = 35, according to Hallmark Cards, the definitive source for such matters).

As is so often the case, the best explanation is due to Harry B. Gray, and the following article from 2003, is highly recommended for a history of bioinorganic chemistry as well as for an overview of the research areas.

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Apr 1, 2003; 100(7): 3563–3568. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0730378100


Of relevance here is the following (a few comments added):

"During June 16–20, 1976, several hundred chemists and biologists assembled at the University of British Columbia (UBC) to listen to 13 lectures and discuss recent developments at the interface of inorganic chemistry and biology. To be sure, there had been many previous meetings at which this new science was featured, notably one in Blacksburg, Virginia (1), and several others on special topics that were held during the 1950s and 1960s. As the old timers will remember, the Gordon Research Conference on Metals in Biology (MIB GRC, originally called Metals and Metal Binding in Biology) had its inaugural meeting in August 1962, at the New Hampton School, New Hampshire. Interest in the conference from the inorganic side grew rapidly, and in 1970, with Paul Saltman running the show, the MIB GRC tradition of close interactions among biologists, biochemists, and inorganikers was firmly established.

With apologies to the organizers and participants of earlier gatherings of the faithful, I will start with the UBC meeting, because it was the immediate precursor of the now famous International Conference on Bioinorganic Chemistry (ICBIC) series (and, accordingly, often called ICBIC-0!), created by Ivano Bertini and held first in Florence in 1983, with highly successful encores in Portugal [1985], The Netherlands [1987], Boston [MIT, 1989; K. D. Karlin organizer], Oxford [1991], San Diego [UCSD, P. Saltman organizer], Japan [1997], Germany [1995], and Minneapolis [UMinn, L. Que, Jr. organizer]. On its 10th anniversary, in 2001, the ICBIC returned to Florence, as well it should have done, and on it goes, with ICBIC-11 set for Cairns, Australia, in July of this year [2003]." [2007 in Vienna, Austria; 2009 in Nagoya, Japan; 2011 in Vancouver, BC as noted above; 2013 in Grenoble, France; 2015 to be in Beijing, PR China; 2017 to be in Brazil].

Learning Goals: 

Appreciation of the continuing themes of research interest in bioinorganic chemistry, e.g., dinitrogen fixation.

Appreciation of the history of the area and the "giants on whose shoulders we stand".

Creative Commons License: 
Creative Commons Licence



Good find! I will use this during the beginning of my bioinorganic chemistry class.


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