Archive for January 29th, 2021

The Stevens rearrangement: how history gives us new insights.

Friday, January 29th, 2021

In a recent post, I told the story of how in the early 1960s, Robert Woodward had encountered an unexpected stereochemical outcome to the reaction of a hexatriene, part of his grand synthesis of vitamin B12. He had constructed a model of the reaction he wanted to undertake, perhaps with the help of a physical model, concluding that the most favourable of the two he had built was not matched by the actual outcome of the reaction. He was thus driven to systematise such (Pericyclic) reactions by developing rules for them with Roald Hoffmann. This involved a classification scheme of “allowed” and “forbidden” pericyclic reactions and his original favoured model in fact corresponded to the latter type. When physical model building in the 1960s was gradually replaced by models based on quantum mechanical calculations from the 1970s onwards, the term “allowed” morphed into “a relatively low energy transition state for the reaction can be located” and very often “no transition state exists for a forbidden reaction”. The famous quote “there are no exceptions” (to this rule) was often interpreted that if a “forbidden reaction” did apparently proceed, its mechanism was NOT that of a pericyclic reaction. Inspired by all of this, I recollected a famous “exception” to the rules which is often explained by such non-pericyclic character, the Stevens rearrangement[1],[2],[3] by a 1,2-shift.



  1. T.S. Stevens, E.M. Creighton, A.B. Gordon, and M. MacNicol, "CCCCXXIII.—Degradation of quaternary ammonium salts. Part I", J. Chem. Soc., vol. 0, pp. 3193-3197, 1928.
  2. T.S. Stevens, "CCLXX.—Degradation of quaternary ammonium salts. Part II", J. Chem. Soc., vol. 0, pp. 2107-2119, 1930.
  3. T.S. Stevens, W.W. Snedden, E.T. Stiller, and T. Thomson, "CCLXXI.—Degradation of quaternary ammonium salts. Part III", J. Chem. Soc., vol. 0, pp. 2119-2125, 1930.