A Vision for ‘Serious Science’: An Interview with Distinguished Alumnus Everly B. Fleischer

September 28, 2023
three men in suits

At 86 years old, Everly ‘Ev’ B. Fleischer ’58 BS, ’61 Ph.D., walks around the University of California (UC), Irvine campus twice a week, a two-mile stretch, to spend time in his lab and keep up with the latest chemistry.

The drive to push himself was instilled in him from an early age. When he and his brothers were boys, their father, a brilliant electrochemist, Arthur Fleischer 1924S, Ph.D. 1927, would explain his work to them over dinner and give them educational challenges – $50 to memorize the first four pages of the Declaration of Independence, for instance.

The Fleischer brothers developed a tenacity for learning and working hard that paid off. After attending Yale, they all went on to successful careers, each making their mark, like their father, who helped build an aluminum plant. Allan A. Fleischer ’60 Ph.D. (deceased), was a physicist and entrepreneur in high-tech industries until he co-founded his own company, Medi-Physics. Arthur Fleischer, Jr. ’53 BA, ’58 LLB was a senior partner and chairman of the law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. Ev, professor emeritus of chemistry, researches porphyrins and served as dean at the University of California and the University of Colorado as well as executive vice chancellor of UC, Riverside.

When their father died in 1987, the brothers established the Arthur Fleischer (1924S, Ph.D. 1927) Fund in his memory. The endowment funds the Fleischer Prize to recognize exceptional graduating chemistry seniors and the Fleischer Fellowship Fund, which supports summer research in faculty laboratories for chemistry majors between their junior and senior years.

Ev’s own summer research as an undergrad at Yale has made an indelible impression on him. The experience allowed him to do something unheard of. He continued his research on porphyrins with Professor Rui Wang into graduate school and finished his research in two years. In addition, when his advisor took a sabbatical in England, Ev joined him, writing his thesis and traveling for fun.

Early in his career, Ev made significant discoveries on porphyrins, an important compound in medicine and biology. Porphyrins are the reason why your blood is red – heme in hemoglobin, is a porphyrin – and why plants are green – chlorophyll is a porphyrin. Ev discovered that porphyrins, contrary to belief, were not flat and coined the much-used term “sitting-atop” for the way elements bind to the compound.

In this interview, Ev talks about his father and what giving means to him.    

Growing up, what got you interested in chemistry?

Ev Fleischer: My father was a well-educated, smart chemist. When I was ten (the only chemistry I knew was a chemistry set), I would go to my father’s lab. My father said, “I have a $50 challenge for you. If you memorize the periodic table, know all their names, put them in the table from scratch, and know their atomic weights to two places, I’ll give you 50 bucks.” I’ve never had a good memory, but I thought, “Oh, this can’t be that hard.”

My father was not only brilliant, but he was wise. So, I get out a periodic table, and in two weeks, I memorize the elements and where they go. When I was ten, I knew it better than most of my career.

Then I started on the atomic weights, hydrogens 1.008, for instance, and I got about halfway up the periodic table somewhere near copper and iron, and I could never fill in the weights to two places. After another few weeks, I went to my father, and I said, “You know, I went right up the periodic table, and it’s pretty interesting all these elements that make up the world and everything in the universe.” I said to him that I did pretty well on this task and should get at least half the award. He said, “NO. You didn’t fulfill our agreement.” He probably knew them to two places. And so, he looked at me he said, “Well, that’s good. But not up to our agreement”. So, I never got my 50 bucks but learned to live up to my agreements!

What motivated you to establish the Fleischer Fellowship for undergraduate chemistry students?

Ev Fleischer: My father was a great electrochemist. He and his brothers (my uncles, all Yale graduates) got the highest honors as undergrads (summa cum laude) and very high honors as grad students. They all loved chemistry. They were super smart. So smart when you were around them, you knew that you were not that smart. He worked for a lot of companies, and at night he would write chem abstracts.

After he died, we wanted to set up an award to give to the best students going to grad school, so we’d be sure they’d be doing serious science later in their career.

How has giving been rewarding for you?

Ev Fleischer: It’s rewarding seeing we have given money which has two effects: 1) seeing the best of best chemistry undergraduates at Yale be rewarded and 2) giving them an experience in a research laboratory. I’m very pleased that these young people are getting a chance in the lab. If anyone wants to work in the lab, typically, a faculty will have to put them on their grants. That’s an important part of the Chemistry Department. And if outstanding undergraduate stars go on, they’ll end up doing a major amount of outstanding chemistry in their life.

There are a lot of people who put the award on their vita. So, you know, it’s a big award. I get a kick out of that. A lot of Fleischer Fellows have done well, and I think at least four Arthur Fleischer Award recipients have gotten into the National Academy. It sure honors my dad.

What inspires you about the future of chemistry and how it impacts our world?

Ev Fleischer: Chemistry has a huge influence on all the other sciences. In the end, it’s the molecules that make a difference. Whether you’re a doctor or you have a plant that makes drugs, a huge number of problems require you to know chemistry pretty well and go beyond what everyone else has done. Maybe this is the excitement that scientists have.