Authorities found Japanese Nobel laureate Ei-ichi Negishi wandering the rural streets and his wife was found dead in a car. Picture: Steve Scherer/Purdue University via AP
Washington - Before dawn on March 13, deputies from the Ogle County Sheriff's Office south of Rockford, Illinois, responded to a report of a man wandering on a rural stretch of a nearby state road. The 82-year-old man law enforcement found on foot was dehydrated and confused. As he was transported to a nearby hospital for treatment, authorities did not yet realise he was one-half of an Indiana couple reported missing the night before.

They also did not know yet he was one of the brightest chemistry minds on the planet.

In 2010, Ei-ichi Negishi, a professor of organic chemistry at Purdue University, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, the top honour for a lifetime of scientific work. The prize was awarded to Negishi for his research, "palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis" - a process known as "Negishi coupling." As the Lafayette Journal & Courier reported, after his Nobel award, he frequently said the honour half belonged to Sumire, his wife of 50 years.

In Ogle County, deputies soon realised both Ei-ichi and Sumire had been reported missing by their family to the Indiana State Police. Eventually, police found the couple's car in a ditch at a landfill eight miles from the Rockford International Airport. Sumire was found dead in the car. Police do not believe the death was the result of foul play, the Rockford Register Star reported.

This week, the Negishi family released a statement to WTHR. "We are devastated by the loss of our beloved wife and mother, Sumire Negishi, who was near the end of her battle with Parkinson's," the statement said. "The car was stuck in a ditch and determined to be nonfunctioning and [Negishi] appeared to be searching for help."

According to the family, when Ogle County deputies first encountered Negishi, he explained he was trying to get to the airport. He is still being treated at a hospital.

The Negishis first arrived at Purdue in 1966 when the young researcher came to study under future-Nobel prize winner Hubert C. Brown, the Journal & Courier has reported. After leaving for a few years in the 1970s, the family returned in 1979 and have been in West Lafayette ever since. In 2011, the school partly named an institute after Negishi.

Sumire was also an important figure in the area. When a Japanese auto plant opened in the region in 1988, she worked with the families of Japanese employees who had relocated to the states through the adjustment.

"Sumire Negishi was instrumental in helping to build the strong ties between Indiana and Japan through her extensive work both in assisting Japanese who relocated to our community and in helping to introduce the Japanese culture to Indiana residents," a company executive told the paper this week.

On Wednesday, Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, released a statement expressing condolences on behalf of the campus.

"Purdue University and the world have lost a dear friend in the death of Sumire Negishi," Daniels wrote, according to the Register Star. "Throughout a lifetime of love and loyalty, she supported her husband in a career of tremendous contributions to science and to the teaching and training of subsequent generations of top scientists."

The Washington Post