CCB giant, Richard Holm, dies at age 87

February 18, 2021
CCB giant, Richard Holm, dies at age 87

Colleagues, friends and family share memories and tributes after the passing of a pioneer in bioinorganic chemistry


On February 15, 2021, Professor Richard H. Holm passed away at the age of 87. He gave over 41 years to the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, where he served as Chair from 1983 to 1986 and earned the title Higgins Professor of Chemistry (also in 1983) before transitioning to the Higgins Emeritus Professor of Chemistry in 2013. 

“He was one of the pioneers of the field now known as bioinorganic chemistry by bringing the art of synthetic inorganic chemistry to biology, creating metallocofactor active sites outside the protein milieu,” said Daniel G. Nocera, Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard University, in an obituary in C&EN

Cynthia Friend, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, also contributed a quote, saying: "Dick Holm was a giant in the field of inorganic chemistry. He was a visionary with exacting standards and a wonderful colleague. I am indebted to him for his friendship over the years and for his support when I was a new faculty member at Harvard. His leadership and presence will be sorely missed.”

To learn more about Holm and how to commemorate his life, read the family's official obituary (posted below) and the C&EN memorial or watch his 2011 interview with the American Chemical Society.



Richard Hadley Holm  professor emeritus of chemistry at Harvard University, passed away on February 15,2021, after a short illness, at Care Dimensions Hospice House in Lincoln. He was 87 years old.

Born in Boston on September 24 1933, Richard was adopted by Les (Leslie) Holm and Leora (née Bennett) and spent his early years on his father’s dairy farm on Nantucket, with sisters Betty and Hazel. Alongside the farm, Les also ran a small air charter, Nobadeer Flying Service, which eventually became Nantucket Memorial Airport and served as the inspiration for Richard’s keen and abiding interest in aviation. His father’s premature death forced a family move to Falmouth, where Richard’s lifelong love of the ocean and the town’s beaches took hold, and where he attended Lawrence High School, excelling academically and cultivating his interests in journalism and baseball. 

After graduation, Richard’s intellect and passion for science took him to UMass Amherst, where he met the love of his life, Florence (née Jacintho).  They were married in June 1958, and spent 62 happy years together, with Richard often remarking that he owed all his life’s achievements to the love and support of his wife. Richard completed his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, settling first in Boston, and then Watertown. While Richard was an assistant professor at Harvard, there were three welcome additions to the family: his daughter Sharon, and sons Eric and Christian. During the 1960s and 70s, Richard’s research in inorganic and, later, bioinorganic chemistry led him to serve on the faculties of the University of Wisconsin, MIT, and Stanford University. While living in Wellesley, another daughter, Marg, was welcomed, completing the family. From 1980, Richard worked at Harvard University, where he was Chair of the Department of Chemistry (1983-86) and the Higgins Professor of Chemistry (1983), before becoming the Higgins Emeritus Professor of Chemistry in 2013.

Professor Holm’s groundbreaking research helped establish the field of bioinorganic chemistry (or metallobiochemistry), now a fundamental discipline in the biological sciences. Through the study of low molecular-weight analogues of metal-containing sites in proteins and enzymes, he and his coworkers created the chemical, detailed framework for understanding the function of metal ions in biological systems. Incisive studies of iron-sulfur-containing proteins, important in respiration, or of the molybdenum or tungsten centers in certain enzymes involved in oxygen atom transfer, were activities characteristic of the years 1972-2015. Though original synthesis was his main effort, molecular cluster excision solids was a parallel activity in the later years. Besides iron, molybdenum and tungsten, he explored the biologically related chemistry of vanadium and nickel. Aseries of review articles, co-authored with Professor Edward Solomon of Stanford University, that covered the bioinorganic field beginning in 1996 grew to encompass studies extending beyond classical inorganic chemical synthesis to include enzymology, molecular biology, spectroscopy and computational methods. Throughout his distinguished career, “Dick”, as he was known to colleagues and friends, published over 500 research papers in inorganic and bioinorganic chemistry, and delivered over 90 named lectureships and plenary lectures, both in the U.S. and abroad. Aside from research and teaching, he served his profession as a member of many editorial boards, advisory panels, and visiting committees. He was elected to membership inboth the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2012 became an honorary member of the Society of Biological Inorganic Chemistry. Recognitions include American Chemical Society awards at local and national levels, notably the ACS Awards in Bioinorganic or Bioorganic Chemistry and for Distinguished Service in Inorganic Chemistry, the Bailar, Cotton, Howe, Pauling, and Richards Awards from local ACS sections, the Polyhedron (Wilkinson) Prize, the Centenary Medal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the National Academy of Sciences Award in the Chemical Sciences. In 2016, he (along with Stephen J. Lippard) received the prestigious Welch Award in Chemistry for research described as having “provided the intellectual and chemical framework that is leading to important discoveries in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.”

In his last few years, Richard led a quieter life. A Belmont resident for forty years, he continued work from his much-loved home, corresponded with fellow scientists, read history books, listened to the radio, and most of all enjoyed time with his wife and beloved dog, Tashi. Among the highlights of those years were the visits of his children and grandchildren, which were precious to a man who valued family above all else. He leaves behind his devoted wife, Florence, as well as his children and their spouses/partners: Sharon Holm (and Kevin Killeen) of York, England; Eric (and Reiko) Holm of Kamakura, Japan; Christian Holm of Waltham; and Marg (and Michael) Short of Palm Harbor, Florida. He is also survived by five grandchildren, Amanda, Maya, Kiara, Molly Rose, and Benjamin, as well as manynieces and nephews. All of his family are immensely proud of him and shall miss him beyond words. 

Interment of his ashes will take place at Highland Meadow Cemetery, Belmont, and a memorial service will be held at a later date. Announcement of these arrangements are forthcoming. 

Remembrances in his honor can made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital:

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