Martin James O’Donnell, scientist, teacher, reader, photographer, genealogist, and traveler, died August 1 in Indianapolis at the age of 77 after a long struggle with cancer. He was Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, where he had taught in the Department of Chemistry since 1975. A beloved husband, father, brother, grandfather, uncle, and friend, Marty died peacefully in his home and was surrounded by loved ones at the end of his life.
Born in 1946 in Williams, Iowa (pop. 307) to James and Elizabeth (Jones) O’Donnell, Marty from a young age displayed the markings of an independent streak. He played baseball and basketball for his high school and performed in the H.M.S. Pinafore as the ship’s captain while wearing a cast on his foot. In his spare time Marty worked in the family general store alongside his sister Jane and brother Jim. Marty never forgot the awful feeling of unloading inventory and unsuspectingly grasping a soft and rotten potato. The experience helped motivate his academic career. He studied chemistry at the University of Iowa, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1968, and at Yale University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1973. While at Yale he admired the civil rights teachings and anti-war lessons of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the university’s famous chaplain.
In 1971 Marty met Kitty Woods of Huntington, West Virginia, and they married in 1972. The early years of their marriage were characterized by international travel in Europe. From 1973 to 1975 they lived in Belgium as Marty completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Université Catholique de Louvain under Professor Léon Ghosez. While based on the continent, Marty and Kitty visited Germany, France, Austria, and especially the British Isles. Time spent in Ireland kindled a lifelong fascination with the country of Marty’s ancestors, which he would explore in retirement as an amateur genealogist.
Upon returning to the United States, Marty took a professorship at IUPUI, which would serve as his academic home. Indianapolis formed an approximate halfway point in the Midwest between Iowa and West Virginia, allowing for Marty’s parents and Kitty’s parents (Luther and Kitty (Scott) Woods) and her sister Sue to become active and loving extended family members as a family grew to include children Patrick (b. 1976), Michael (1979), and Kathleen (1986). Last year Marty and Kitty celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a family reunion in Sag Harbor, New York, and an elegant family dinner in Indianapolis.
As a scientist, Marty devoted equal attention to research and teaching. An organic chemist who specialized in the development of new methods for synthesizing amino acids—the building blocks of life—he pioneered a novel type of amino acid synthesis known as “O’Donnell’s Schiff bases.” Marty authored some 90 academic articles in such publications as the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and his work was cited in the 2021 Nobel Lecture in Chemistry. He mentored scores of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. In recent decades Marty turned his efforts toward pedagogy, collaborating with longtime colleagues William Scott and Geno Samaritoni on a research-based experience for the college classroom. IUPUI recognized Marty’s contributions with honors including the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. He retired from active duties at the university in 2011.
Marty inherited a spirit of adventure from his mother and put it to use with a lifelong pursuit of international travel, often with a camera in hand. In 1986 he took a sabbatical to Imperial College London, moving his family to an apartment in South Kensington. The setting proved a base for extensive touring throughout the United Kingdom, as well as France and Ireland. Marty’s work also brought him to China, Italy, Poland, Spain, and other nations around the world. A visit to Japan in 1997 led to repeated demands on his singing voice, and he was heard to favor patrons of the karaoke bars of Nagoya with his unique rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Marty’s final international trip was so remarkable that he repeated it. He visited his daughter Kathleen while she spent a year in Kenya in 2012, and while there he met his future son-in-law Javan Odinga. Marty was so taken with the elephants and great cats of the Maasai Mara savannah that he returned the following year to photograph the gorillas of the Rwandan rainforests.
A shy man and an introvert, Marty found refuge in the diligent application of his mind to problems of every type. His most cherished value was hard work. More than once, his children made the mistake of seeking his assistance with mathematics or chemistry assignments, only to find the hours dragging by as he supervised them double- and triple-checking their work. Yet despite his solitary nature, Marty thrived on connection with others. His loved ones would often be moved to find that their interests had become his interests too, as he studied in private and became an expert in cycling, law, soccer, and music. He delighted in reconnecting with distant relatives, and enjoyed the way genealogy allowed him to meet fellow researchers-at-heart. An athlete in his prime, he rode his bicycle across the state of Indiana, hit a hole in one, regularly swam a mile in the small backyard pool (176 laps), and briefly flirted with the speed walking craze of the 1980s, alarming the neighbors as well as his father.
Never one to tiptoe in moderation, Marty lived a life of leaping enthusiasms. He once ate so many oranges that his body developed a violent aversion to citrus. After discovering that banker’s boxes were a convenient method of storing research papers, he filled his study with them—and then the children’s closets, and then the shed in the yard. His and Kitty’s home on Steinmeier Drive is a museum of artifacts tracing the passions that consumed him at one time or another, from juggling balls to ergonomic furniture to pasta-making apparatus to the books that he read, loved, forgot, and repurchased. His favorite novel was Lost Horizon by James Hilton and his most beloved film was The Wizard of Oz. Marty lived for bowls of ice cream, summer baseball, fresh bread with cold butter, old movies, the Tour de France, and classical music, for which he had an encyclopedic memory. His black mustache and Birkenstock sandals over white socks rounded out his presentation as an absent-minded professor. Not once was he mistaken for someone else.
Marty is survived by his beloved wife Kitty, his children Patrick, Michael (Mary), and Kathleen (Javan Odinga), his sister Jane, his brother Jim (Michael Ginther), his grandchildren Caroline, Darrem, Garrett, James, Jane, and Louie, and his brother’s children Kel and Audre.
Friday, August 11, 2023
1:00 - 2:00pm (Eastern time)
Friday, August 11, 2023
2:00 - 2:00pm (Eastern time)