Campus & Community

Jeremy R. Knowles

5 min read

Jeremy R. Knowles, an eminent chemist and longtime leader of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, died today (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 College.

“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.”

The memorial service for Knowles will be at 11 a.m. Friday, May 30, in Memorial Church.

Born in England in 1935, Knowles was educated at Magdalen College School, 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. (For more on Knowles’s deanship,

“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.”

“Jeremy Knowles was a dear friend, a widely admired scientist, and a leader of exceptional ability and exceptional devotion to Harvard,” said former President Derek Bok. “Along with unfailing wit and charm, he possessed enormous energy and the highest intellectual and ethical standards. His final year of service as a dean must surely rank as one of the most selfless acts of loyalty in Harvard’s history. Under very trying circumstances, he succeeded in restoring a badly needed sense of momentum and progress at a critical time for his Faculty. We all owe him an enormous debt.”

“Jeremy’s leadership, intellect, and courage have been an inspiration to us all,” says Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. “He guided the FAS with an unwavering dedication to the highest standards of academic excellence and to the University’s highest ideals. His leadership strengthened the FAS immeasurably. He will be greatly missed.”

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 intersection of chemistry and biochemistry, and was aimed especially at gaining a detailed understanding of how enzymes catalyze the reactions that sustain life. He made many fundamental discoveries and conceptual advances, including, for example, the demonstration that during evolution the catalytic efficiency of enzymes had increased to the highest possible level. His work was characterized by an exceptional degree of precision and rigor. 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 Sciences, 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.