Joseph Victor Smith
July 30, 1928 - April 6, 2007

Joe Smith was a man of many talents and interests. His study of the moon, his investigation of feldspars or his contribution to the electron microprobe: each of these achievements by itself would have earned him the respect of his scientific colleagues.

We remember Joe Smith mostly as a zeolite scientist and as a man who advanced the field in many ways. I would like to celebrate his accomplishments and remember his scientific life by reminding you of some of the best of his zeolite-related work. For more details of his vita and of his other interests see the obituaries on the University of Chicago and the Boston Globe websites.

Between 1929 and 1933 the crystal structures of zeolite minerals of the SOD, ANA, EDI, NAT and THO-types had been determined. It took more than 20 years before any further zeolite crystal structures were correctly solved: the CAN-type in 1955, LTA (the first synthetic zeolite) in 1956 and FAU and CHA in 1958. It is hardly imaginable today, but when Dent and Smith determined the structure of the CHA-type in 1958 it was a difficult undertaking, what with five crystallographically independent atoms! Wyart had attempted it in 1933, but his determination was wrong (he had obtained the SOD-type structure in rhombohedral setting instead). Following Dent and Smith, Nowacki and collaborators published an independent structure determination of the CHA-type in 1958 as well. This was the time when Barrer’s work was beginning to bear fruit and various industrial applications of zeolites became a reality. It kindled the interest in the crystal structures of these strange compounds and was followed by a flurry of activity: numerous zeolite crystal structures were determined in the 1960's.

Twenty years later Joe was again at the forefront. By this time the impact of computers on the practice of crystallography had revolutionized the field and allowed the determination of complicated structures such as silicalite. Both ZSM-5 and silicalite were known as extremely interesting materials of MFI topology. This topology was established in a February 1978 publication on silicalite in the journal Nature by Flanigen, Bennett, Smith and collaborators. In March of the same year the structural description of ZSM-5 by Kokotailo, Lawton, Olson and Meier was published. These were the most complicated crystal structures of zeolites determined so far. This work opened the way to much fruitful research in the coming years.

After the tetrahedral aluminophosphate molecular sieves were synthesized in the early 1980's it was again Joe Smith, who, together with Bennett, Flanigen and Pluth led the way in exploring these new crystal stuctures. The first to be studied was the structure of AFI topology, to be followed by several more. Investigations of this group of compounds continue into the present.

But even when Joe was not the first to enter an area of study, he still could set the standard for the quality of workmanship. In five carefully performed experiments published from 1979 to 1983 Pluth and Smith showed how to refine the crystal structures of LTA-type compounds. They established that the so-called zero-coordinated cations claimed to occur there were the artifacts of faulty refinements.

However, Joe was never satisfied with experiments alone. He saw the potential of seeing things in their context. For example he followed the path indicated by A. F. Wells and studied the three-dimensional nets of bonds outlined by the T-O connections in zeolites. He began this work in 1964 with a paper by Moore and Smith, and he continued to explore this field systematically over the years. In 2000 Joe published a book in the Landolt-Börnstein series summarizing his exploits along those lines. In this book he analyzed the topological properties of numerous nets occurring in actual crystal structures, mostly in zeolites. This is an excerpt from his unpublished Catalog of Theoretical Nets comprising 1300 examples. His heroic and thoughtful work in this direction is now being superseded by computer-based approaches as pursued by Mike Treacy and collaborators.

Because Joe liked to see the general case behind each specific instance he was very good at writing review articles. Rather early in his “zeolite-career” and at a time when many zeolite crystal structures where not known yet, he published in 1963 a Structural Classification of Zeolites. His “Topochemistry of Zeolites and Related Materials. 1. Topology and Geometry” of 1988 became an instant classic and has been cited almost 400 times. His voracious appetite for reading is documented by the 525 references given in that paper. I am not aware that he ever published the second part, which I assume would have been titled “Topochemistry of Zeolites and Related Materials. 2. Chemistry”. Somebody else will have to do that.

I estimate that about one quarter of his ca. 400 published papers deal in one way or another with zeolites. However many zeolitic papers he wrote, he always had a keen awareness of what was important and often his work defined what was to become important.

Incidentally, the photographs of Joe at two of the websites mentioned above show him the way we all have seen him often: he holds in his hands one of his numerous zeolite models. While we mourn his parting let us remember Joe the way he was: an enthusiastic scientist, always full of stimulating ideas. Let us remember him with one of the zeolite models in his hands.

Werner H. Baur
April 30, 2007