Campus & Community

New chemistry medal is established:

6 min read

Named for professor emeritus Frank Westheimer

Said Houghton Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Jeremy Knowles about Frank Westheimer (above), ‘Frank … has inspired thousands of undergraduates in the classroom. Every organic chemist and every biochemist has learned from his incisive work.’ (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

“There’s no praise sweeter than that from one’s colleagues,” says Frank Westheimer, Morris Loeb Professor of Chemistry Emeritus. After a lifetime of research, Westheimer, 90, has gotten this kind of sweet thrill to add to his many other laurels.

Harvard University has established a new medal for distinguished research into the field of chemistry, in which Westheimer has played a leading role since 1936. “I never expected anything like this,” he says. “I am astonished and delighted.”

The idea for the new medal first came up at Westheimer’s 90th birthday party last January. Previously, the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology had designed a small coinlike award to be given to individuals who contribute significantly to the department. Tony Shaw, director of chemical laboratories, suggested giving one of them to Westheimer. That got several members of the department thinking about establishing a unique gold medal in Westheimer’s honor to award to outstanding scientists who had worked in organic and biological chemistry.

One of the leading perpetrators of this plan was Elias J. (“E.J.”) Corey, Sheldon Emery Research Professor, who won the 1990 Nobel Prize in chemistry. “A constant of Frank’s career has been the ability to take up an important scientific problem, solve it in an elegant and definitive way, and open a whole new field of research,” Corey notes. “His discoveries have led, not only to a profound understanding of the behavior of molecules during chemical change, but to practical advances in the design of new drugs and other therapeutic agents.”

Jeremy Knowles, Amory Houghton Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, adds that, “in the course of an outstanding career in teaching and research, Frank has welcomed more than 200 students and postdoctoral collaborators into his laboratory. And he has inspired thousands of undergraduates in the classroom. Every organic chemist and every biochemist has learned from his incisive work.”

The first medal will be presented on Oct. 8 to Daniel Koshland Jr. of the University of California, Berkeley. “I am honored and delighted to receive the Westheimer medal,” he said. “It is particularly pleasant because I spent stimulating and exciting years as his graduate student, and because I followed that with wonderful years as a postdoctoral fellow in the Harvard Chemistry Department. The medal is an insightful recognition of the role of chemistry in biology and of Frank Westheimer, one of the great pioneers in biological chemistry.”

Rocky starts

Koshland received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1949 and went on to postdoctoral work at Harvard in 1949-51. But things did not go well for him after that. He was rejected by every university to which he applied. Westheimer wrote letters to those prospective employers advising that, “if no job was available, they should make one because they wouldn’t have an opportunity like this again.” But, Westheimer admits, “My standing wasn’t so high in those days.”

After working on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb and doing biochemical research at Brookhaven National laboratory in New York, Koshland was hired in 1965 by the University of California, Berkeley, where he still works. “During his time at Berkeley, he has been offered a job at every one of the universities that rejected him,” Westheimer says with a smile. “He refused them all.”

Westheimer’s career also got off to a rocky start. After earning a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1935, he went to Columbia University as a National Research Fellow. James Bryant Conant, then president of Harvard, called him into his office. Conant, a chemist who had been Westheimer’s research adviser, asked him what he planned to do next.

“I described my research project to him,” Westheimer recalls. “He thought about my answer for a minute, then he said, ‘If you are successful, you’ll be a footnote to a footnote in the history of chemistry.’”

Westheimer did the project and it was successful. “And Conant was right,” he says. “It was an utterly trivial piece of research. As a result, I decided I would never again undertake research that wasn’t at least potentially important. When I got to the University of Chicago, I started a project that was grandiose. It didn’t work out at all. But at least I was launched in the right direction.”

Getting good ideas

Westheimer stayed at the University of Chicago from 1936 to 1953, except for 1944-45, when he worked on explosives for a federal agency during World War II. By the age of 25, Westheimer began to worry that he would never have a good idea. “I was already older than some of the greats of chemistry who had their ideas early,” he notes. “Happily, I was mistaken.”

In 1953, Westheimer came to Harvard as a visiting professor and never left. Until his retirement in 1983, he kept getting good ideas and making seminal discoveries about once every decade. “If you add up all of Frank’s ideas and discoveries, he made a tremendous contribution to fundamental and practical chemistry at time when chemistry was undergoing a major scientific revolution,” Corey says.

His work was recognized by a long list of national and international awards. These include the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor given by the United States; the Robert Welch Award, a symbol of recognition from other chemists; and membership in the British Royal Society, the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific group.

“The thrill of doing the work,” he comments,” is much greater than the thrill of getting awards, and it’s a considerable thrill to get the awards.”

Westheimer also did his share of public service. He was as a member of President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisory committee from 1967 to 1970. He also chaired the National Academy of Sciences Committee for the Survey of Chemistry, which, in 1965, produced a landmark report that chemists still talk about. It presented evidence of how basic research eventually leads to more practical results than applied studies focused on single goals.

Harvard’s admiration for Westheimer goes beyond his contributions to chemistry and biochemistry, however. As E.J. Corey puts it, “Frank’s absolute integrity, towering intellect, and warm personal qualities have enriched the lives of many others in the University community. He is a symbol of what the faculty aspires to.” And that symbol now is a golden reality in the form of the Westheimer Medal.