Academics & Faculty

Donald Cram, Nobel Laureate and UCLA Chemist, Dies at 82

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Donald J. Cram, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who taught andconducted research at UCLA for more than 50 years and is remembered bythousands of undergraduates for singing and playing guitar in class, died ofcancer June 17 at his home in Palm Desert.He was 82.

A renowned scientist who was as comfortable riding the waveswith friends in the San Onofre Surfing Club as he was in his lab at UCLAconstructing complex molecular models, Cram won the Nobel Prize in 1987 and theNational Medal of Science in 1993 for his work in host-guest chemistry, a fieldhe helped to create. In 1998, he wasranked among the 75 most important chemists of the past 75 years byChemical and Engineering News.

"DonaldCram stands alone in the incredible variety, beauty and depth of hisaccomplishments," read the citation for Cram's National Medal of Science. "His investigations have helped give thisscience its form and sophistication. Hetruly brought art to science by making his science an art."

Achemist at UCLA since 1947, Cram opened broad new avenues for explorationacross organic chemistry, with applications in both basic research as well asspecific fields, such as pharmaceutical production and the medical testingindustry.

"Don's brilliant creativity, integrity, and enthusiasmfor life and science have forever changed teaching in organic chemistry, andaltered the shape and substance of the chemical research frontier," said M.Frederick Hawthorne, university professor of chemistry at UCLA and one ofCram's earliest graduate students. "Donwas a giant in organic chemistry; his research affects the many ways organicchemistry now appears in our daily lives."

In his host-guest research, Cram created synthetic hostmolecules that mimic some of the actions that enzymes perform in cells. Since 1970, he and his colleagues designedand prepared more than 1,000 hosts — each with unique chemical and physicalproperties.

These molecules are designed to attract and bind — in otherwords, to serve as hosts — to specific guest molecules, which can be eitherorganic molecules or inorganic ions.

"This is the art of the possible," Cram told a reporter in1986. "What is possible, but has notbeen done, yet is like an enemy. Youhave to conduct intelligence operations on the behavior of organic moleculesand spy on their behavior. You have topiece together hints and clues, and try to put yourself in the mind ofenemy. You have to take the implicit andmake it explicit and tractable; I'm good at that."

Twenty years after beginning work in host-guest chemistry,Cram won the Nobel Prize in 1987 – an award he shared with Jean-Marie Lehn ofUniversite Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France, and Charles Pedersen, a chemistat E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

"Don set extremely high standards in his field, and he andcolleague Saul Winstein were in large part responsible for UCLA's high standingin organic chemistry," said William Gelbart, chair of the UCLA Department ofChemistry and Biochemistry. "Don wasdriven by the challenge of doing creative work, and he left that legacy inhundreds of his students."

Afterwinning the Nobel Prize and entering his 70s, Cram embarked on a bold andsophisticated extension of his original work: a new field he called "carceplex"chemistry, a process in which one molecule (a carcerand) captures anotherinside of it — with a result that creates a new phase of matter.

Bornin 1919 in Vermont, Cram developed an interest in chemistry in his senior yearof high school. He received his B.S. inchemistry at Rollins College in 1941.He earned his master's degree in organic chemistry at the University ofNebraska; he completed his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1947 after serving duringWorld War II as a research chemist at Merck & Co., where he worked on thepenicillin program.

"Inmy first year of college, I was told by my chemistry professor — now an oldfriend — that academic research is a wonderful profession, but I did not have agood enough mind for it," Cram said in 1985."That was the best thing that could have happened to me. I decided to prove him wrong."

Cram joined the UCLA faculty in 1947 as an instructor,and served on the faculty for the rest of his career. During four decades of conducting research and teaching at UCLA,Cram published more than 400 research papers and seven books on organicchemistry — one of which has been translated into 11 languages. He trained more than 200 graduate studentsand taught some 8,000 UCLA undergraduates in his courses, including several ofthe introductory classes taught in the Department of Chemistry andBiochemistry. Many of his studentsrecall Cram, a long-time guitar player, strumming and singing folk songs inclass at the end of the academic term.

"UCLAhas lost a great member of its family — a scientist of world standing, amarvelous teacher, and an energetic presence on our campus," said UCLAChancellor Albert Carnesale. "Don was a brilliant scholar and a beloved facultymember who honored us by being part of the UCLA family across seven decades. We will remember him as one of the eminentfigures in UCLA history."

Cramwas honored nationally and internationally for his research, including theRoger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry, the top honor presented by the AmericanChemical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences Award in the ChemicalSciences. He was the first holder ofUCLA's Saul Winstein Endowed Chair in Organic Chemistry, and was nameduniversity professor in 1988.

Cramwas elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1961 and received theAmerican Chemical Society Award for Creative Work in Synthetic OrganicChemistry in 1965. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciencesin 1967. In 1974, he received the ACSCope Award for Distinguished Achievement in Organic Chemistry, and was alsonamed California Scientist of the Year.

Cram received the Southern California ACS Tolman Awardand the Chicago Section ACS Gibbs Medal in 1985. He received the National Academy of Sciences Award in ChemicalSciences in 1992.

Cram held honorary degrees from Uppsala University,Sweden (1977), the University of Southern California (1983), Rollins College(1988), the University of Nebraska (1989), the University of Western Ontario,Canada (1989), and from the University of Sheffield (1991).

Describing his love of chemistry and his work, Cramsaid, "when I first heard the word 'research,' it meant to me that the onlylimitations are your own resourcefulness and creativity, and that was preciselywhat I wanted. The physical and lifesciences are the main frontiers left in the world today for exercising thepioneer spirit."

Cram was one of five UCLA scientists to win the NobelPrize. The other four Nobel Laureatesare chemists Paul Boyer (1997) and Willard Libby (1960), physicist Julian Schwinger(1965), and pharmacologist Louis Ignarro (1998).

Cramis survived by his wife, Caroline, and sisters Margaret Fitzgibbon and KathleenMcLean. In lieu of flowers, gifts canbe made in Cram's name to the charity of the donor's choice.

TheUCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry will hold a memorial service thisfall to honor Cram's achievements. Formore information about the service, contact the department at (310) 825-3958.

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