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Nobel Prize winning chemist Herbert A. Hauptman dies at 94

Herbert A. Hauptman, winner of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry and numerous other awards for his research into the structure of crystals and molecules, died at 94 Oct. 23 in Amherst, NY, where he had lived and worked for decades, heading up a research institute that now bears his name, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute.

Hauptman never invented a drug or medicine, but “his research made it easier for other scientists to develop thousands of drugs and medical procedures to treat a wide array of illnesses,” his hometown paper, the Buffalo News, wrote.

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The New York Times wrote that the main ideas he and partners worked on were poorly understood and made few converts for at least 15 years after they were published in the 1950s, but they are now used by crystallographers throughout the world to study molecules whose structures were previously inaccessible. The methods they developed “were particularly useful for researchers working with hormones, antibiotics and vitamins” and offered a “clear picture of the structure of hormones and other biological molecules” that allow researchers to better understand the chemistry of the body and of drugs used to treat various illnesses.

The Nobel organization said of his work:

One could without exaggeration say that it is only in the last ten years that chemistry has developed into a truly molecular era. Molecules with desired structures and properties can be produced and the molecular mechanism is known for increasingly more reactions.

It is this importance to chemistry which has motivated a Nobel Prize in chemistry to the mathematician Herbert Hauptman and the physicist Jerome Karle. Another way to express it is that the imagination and ingenuity of the laureates have made it unnecessary to exercise these qualities in normal structure determinations. On the other hand they have increased the possibilities for the chemists to use their imagination and their ingenuity.

"A lot of people who reach that level, winning the Nobel Prize, spend a lot of time wallowing in adulation," said George T. DeTitta, a longtime friend and former executive director of the institute. "Herb never stopped working. He never stopped asking questions."

Herbert Aaron Hauptman was born in a working class neighborhood of The Bronx. His father was a printer; his mother worked as a sales clerk in a store. His interest in science began young. In a TV documentary produced in Buffalo, Hauptman said he never played baseball as a child, but rather read philosophy and mathematics texts as a teenager.

Hauptman received his bachelor’s degree from City College of New York, a home at the time to scores of Jews and other working-class students seeking to rise from their parents’ origins. He was an officer in the Pacific during World War II and then worked as a researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., while he earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Maryland in 1954.

The Times said that Hauptman joined the Medical Foundation of Buffalo, a small research institute that now bears his name, in 1970, after he was “unwilling to shift the focus of his naval research to laser-guided missiles.” The TV documentary of Hauptman explored his decision to remain in Buffalo instead of returning to Washington after winning the Nobel.

His 2008 autobiography, "On the Beauty of Science — A Nobel Laureate Reflects on the Universe, God and the Nature of Discovery," offered a “provocative account of his views on science as it relates to society, politics, education and religion” in which he argued “that science and religion are incompatible and that Americans must learn to think more critically about science and other issues.”

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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