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Drawing On Genius: ChemDraw Turns 30

June 18, 2015

Happy Birthday ChemDraw: A Seminal Chemistry Program Turns 30

Goodbye Rotring pens! So long India ink! Time to sell that drafting table, you denizens of chemistry labs around the world! Once they caught sight of a simple chemical structure drawing tool called ChemDraw for the Apple Macintosh back in 1985, it was love at first sight for a program that has since revolutionized chemistry and arguably the lives of everyone on the planet. Now celebrating its 30th birthday, ChemDraw’s history is one of those compelling tales of genius, serendipity, and perfect timing.

The Making of ChemDraw

Every chemist over 50 remembers the long hours spent at drafting tables fiddling with stencils, rub-off lettering, and a host of other archaic tools to produce meticulously drawn chemical structures for presentations, lectures, and publications. It was painstaking slow work. One mistake and your formula ended up in the waste can.

No one knew that better than Sally Evans. Her husband David was a newly appointed chemistry professor at Harvard. Mrs. Evans, a chemist herself with a talent for graphic design, took on the task of designing her husband’s new lab. One thing she truly disliked, however, was the mind-numbing chore of drawing chemical structures for David’s lectures and presentations. She shared her frustration with a young graduate student named Stewart Rubenstein, who became a frequent visitor to the Evans lab. “How would you like to save my marriage”? she asked. (Reference: Evans, D. A. “History of the Harvard ChemDraw project,” Angew. Chem. Int. Ed.2014, 53, 1521–3773, DOI)

Rubenstein, at the time, was working on an interface between computers and chemistry right down the hall as part of Harvard’s LHASA program, an acronym for “Logic and Heuristics Applied to Synthetic Analysis.” Both Rubenstein and the Evanses were early adopters of the Mac, and they shared the belief that its graphics capabilities offered intriguing possibilities to draw chemical structures if only someone could write the software.

That someone was Rubenstein. A National Science Foundation-sponsored scholar in chemistry, Rubenstein was impressed by the Mac’s graphics capabilities. He already possessed considerable programming skills as a result of working with an IBM mainframe as a high schooler. He also had an added incentive. As a Ph.D. candidate, Rubenstein knew his dissertation would include hundreds of chemical structures he needed to draw by hand unless he programmed the Mac to do it for him.  Little did he know that less than a year later, he would revolutionize the world of chemistry forever with a disruptive new software program dubbed ChemDraw.

Rubenstein credits Professor Evans and his wife with ChemDraw’s early success. Sally passed along some of the standard “must-haves” the software needed to address, while Dave demonstrated the program at conferences around the country, including Eli Lilly & Company, which eventually outfitted every lab with the program.

“He would give these lectures with slide after slide of these beautiful structures,” Rubenstein told Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) in 2014 about Evans’s early efforts. Then he would end the presentation with a slide crediting Rubenstein for ChemDraw. “That is how I started getting calls,” Rubenstein remembers. (Reference: Reflections On ChemDraw, Chemical & Engineering News) The rest, as they say, is history.

By 1986, Rubenstein took a leave of absence from Harvard and with the help of Sally Evans formed Cambridge Scientific Computing, which later became CambridgeSoft. Rubenstein also brought in his brother, Michael to help out with the programming. Together, they updated the software daily and Dave’s lab became the testing ground for evolving iterations of the software, including Chem3D. In 2011, the company was sold to PerkinElmer, a global leader in human and environmental health, and now plays a central role as part of PerkinElmer Informatics.

Becoming a Global Legend

Today, ChemDraw is the most popular chemical structure drawing software in the world. With more than a million copies officially licensed, ChemDraw is the program of choice for chemists and biologists to create publication-ready, scientifically intelligent drawings.  It is also embedded in both PerkinElmer’s enterprise ELN E-Notebook and it’s cloud-based platform Elements ELN, and the data visualization tool Lead Discovery, powered by TIBCO Spotfire. ChemDraw is so popular, in fact, it is now the subject of almost 2,000 videos on YouTube, and the ChemDraw Wizard’s “Draw Viagra in under 20 seconds” has been viewed over 53,000 times. It is also is the accepted means for both submitting and reviewing new chemical compounds at the U.S. Patent Trade Office, and it even serves as the inspiration for an annual t-shirt contest in chemistry. In ChemDraw version 14 and in the newly released ChemDraw 15, there is a direct link to SciFinder® for easy searching of chemical databases.

Happy Endings

True to form, Stewart Rubenstein remains humble about his seminal contribution to the history of chemistry. “I was at the right place at the right time with the right expertise,” he told CEN. “Dave told me that my biggest contribution to chemistry was making certain famous chemists’ structures legible.”

While Rubenstein never returned to Harvard, he ended up retiring from CambridgeSoft in 2006. Sally Evans has returned to teaching and Dave Evans shut down his Harvard lab, but still authors scholarly essays and reports. And yes, Sally and Dave are indeed still married, celebrating their 53rd anniversary later this year.


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