Science & Tech

Jeremy Knowles, eminent chemist, Harvard leader, 72

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Jeremy gave this university his complete devotion, said President Drew Faust.


Harvard News Office


Jeremy R. Knowles, an eminent chemist and longtime leader of Harvard’s
Faculty of Arts and Sciences, died April 3 at his home in
Cambridge, after a struggle with cancer.

Known for his formidable intellect, his encompassing interests, and
his urbane wit, Knowles was a member of the Harvard faculty since 1974
and served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) from 1991
to 2002. From July 2006 through the spring of 2007, he returned to
service as Interim Dean, during a pivotal year in which the Faculty
undertook major reforms of the general education curriculum in Harvard

“Jeremy gave this university his complete devotion,” said President
Drew Faust. “The whole Harvard family joins in mourning the loss of a
singular, irreplaceable spirit, someone who left a huge imprint on the
university he loved and on countless people who will always remember
his warmth, his incisive intelligence, and his passion for education.
From the time I arrived at Harvard in 2001, Jeremy was a mentor and a
dear friend. I will miss him enormously.”

Born in England in 1935, Knowles was educated at Magdalen College
, Oxford. After serving as a pilot officer in the Royal Air
Force, he graduated from Balliol College, receiving his B.A. in 1959
and his D.Phil. in 1961. Before coming to Harvard, he was Fellow and
Tutor of Wadham College, Oxford. He held a post-doctoral fellowship at
the California Institute of Technology, and was a visiting professor at
Yale, and Sloan Visiting Professor at Harvard. He joined the Harvard
faculty as professor of chemistry in 1974, and was named Amory Houghton
Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1979.

His deanship, spanning more than a decade, was marked by major
initiatives to foster academic community and build faculty strength
across the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences, to
augment financial aid for both undergraduate and graduate students, and
to enhance the physical and financial resources of the FAS.

“Deans and leaders like Jeremy come only rarely,” said former
President Neil L. Rudenstine. “He had a penetrating mind. He had wit
and charm and taste. Above all, he understood the nature of a
university and what it meant to search for knowledge, or discover even
a single truth. The standard could never be too high. Many other things
mattered, of course. But if learning, teaching, and research were not
the heart of the matter, why were we here? Once he had decided to leave
his lab, and serve the University in more than chemistry, nothing less
than all his energy and stamina would do. He was no less a friend. If
there was a need for more than mere intelligence or skill, he was
there, with his strength and his commitment.”

In 2002, he was awarded the Harvard Medal in recognition of his
outstanding service to the University. He was named a Harvard
University Distinguished Service Professor in 2003.

Knowles’s research lay at the boundary of chemistry and
biochemistry, and concerned the rate and specificity of enzyme
catalysis and the evolution of protein function. The author of more
than 250 research papers, he advised more than 50 Ph.D. recipients at
Oxford and Harvard. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, the American
Academy of Arts and Science
s, and the American Philosophical Society,
and a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences. He also
served as a trustee of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

His awards included the Charmian Medal, the Bader Award, the
Repligen Award, the Prelog Medal, the Robert A. Welch Award in
Chemistry, and the Nakanishi Prize. He was awarded the Davy Medal of
the Royal Society, and was an honorary fellow of Balliol College and of
Wadham College, Oxford. A recipient of honorary degrees from the
University of Edinburgh and the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in
Zürich, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire
in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 1993.

Knowles is survived by his wife, Jane, their children, Sebastian, Julius, and Timothy, and seven grandchildren.