Nobel Prize Recipient. Robert Burns Woodward, an American chemist, received international notoriety after being awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. According to the Nobel Prize committee, he received the coveted award for his outstanding achievements in the art of organic synthesis." Well-respected in the scientific community, he received 111 nominations for the Nobel candidacy, which is one of the most nominations received in any category. His father died the year after he was born, and he was raised as an only child by his mother Margaret, a Scottish immigrant. Since the family's income was limited, he attended public schools. After exhibiting an interest in chemistry, he purchased the book "Practical Methods of Organic Chemistry" when he was fourteen years old. Much of his early education in chemistry was self-taught usually from books, magazines or periodicals. He was labeled a "boy-genius." At the age of sixteen he was accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but much of his focus centered only on chemistry, thus his other subjects suffered, almost resulting in his dismissal. He graduated from MIT with a bachelor's degree in 1936 and in 1937 earned a doctorate, both in chemistry. By 1940 he was publishing articles in major publications including the "Journal of the American Chemical Society." During his career, he published over 200 articles about his findings. After the summer at the University of Illinois, he accepted a postgraduate fellowship position at Harvard University, where he became a research assistant and in 1941 accepted the position of instructor of chemistry. The following year he accepted an offer from Polaroid, a company known for instant film and cameras. At Polaroid he first became involved with the practical application of synthesis of chemicals beginning with quinine, which Polaroid used extensively in their products. Since World War I, Quinine has been used in the treatment of malaria. Besides malaria, he researched other antibiotics including the puzzling new drug Penicillin, with milestone breakthroughs . Consecutively, he was appointed an assistant professor at Harvard University in 1944; after World War II, he was promoted to associate professor; and in 1950 became a full professor. He advanced to Morris Loeb Professor of Chemistry from 1953 to 1960, and since 1960 until his death, he was Donner Professor of Science. An excellent professor, he had hundreds of students using his laboratories and his lectures frequently lasted for three or four hours. In 1951 he completed one of the first total syntheses of steroids cholesterol and cortisone. In the mid-1950's he focused his synthetic efforts on Reserpine, a drug later used for mental illness. He patented his Reserpine work and assigned the patent to a nonprofit foundation, the Research Corporation. He corroborated with the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz, providing additional unpublished procedures and details of his synthesis as early as January of 1957. For the next two years Sandoz developed methods for improving and simplifying Woodward's procedures. He later successfully synthesized lanosterol, lysergic acid, strychnine, chlorophyll, colchicine, cephalosporin C, and vitamin B12. In 1963 he assumed the position of director of the Woodward Research Institute at Basel, Switzerland. From 1966 to 1971, he was a member of the Corporation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he is a Member of the Board of Governors of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. He was a consultant for major American pharmaceutical companies. In 1960 "The New York Times" published a report that "The Harvard chemist, who synthesized quinine, cortisone and rauwolfia, has now achieved one of the greatest triumphs in chemistry, the total synthesis of chlorophyll, the green pigment that captures the energy of sunlight for the creation of the food for all things living." He received more than twenty honorary degrees from facilities around the world and was a member of a host of scientific societies. Besides the Nobel Prize, he received the John Scott Medal from the Franklin Institute and City of Philadelphia in 1945; Davy Medal from the British Royal Society in 1959; Roger Adams Medal from American Chemical Society in 1961; Pius XI Gold Medal from Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1969; National Medal of Science from United States of America in 1964; Willard Gibbs Medal from Chicago Section of the American Chemical Society in 1967; Lavoisier Medal from Societe Chimique de France in 1968; and in 1970 The Order of the Rising Sun Second Class from Japan, Hanbury Memorial Medal from the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, and Pierre Brnylants Medal in Université de Louvain. He married and divorced twice; with his first wife, he had two daughters and with his second wife, he had a daughter and a son. He died from a heart attack in his sleep at age 62. According to critics, he was said to be the preeminent organic chemist of the twentieth century.
Bio by: Saratoga