Faculty + Staff

In memoriam: Roberts Smith, one of UCLA’s first professors of biochemistry

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Roberts and Adela Smith
UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Adela and Bob Smith at the 2012 Seaborg Medal Dinner at UCLA.

Roberts “Bob” Smith, UCLA professor emeritus of biochemistry who was one of the original group of biochemistry faculty in what was then the chemistry department, died Jan. 25 following a brief illness. He was 89.

Smith joined the UCLA faculty in 1958 as an assistant professor. He rose quickly through the ranks at UCLA, becoming a full professor in 1968. Smith published more than 85 papers in his career and directed the doctoral theses of 22 students. He was known as an engaging teacher and beloved colleague in the department. He retired from the faculty in 1987 but kept active in departmental activities. 

In 2009, the Roberts A. Smith Graduate Award for the Study of Biochemistry was established with an endowment from funds contributed both by Smith and his wife, Adela, and in his honor by his former student Dr. Atsuko Fujimoto and her husband Akira Fujimoto. Atsuko Fujimoto joined Smith’s laboratory shortly after he arrived at UCLA and remembered him as a young and energetic professor. She was his first graduate student and one of the very first women to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry in the department.

“I had some moments of doubt in pursuing my Ph.D. but Bob was always supportive and convinced me I could do it,” wrote Fujimoto, whom Smith encouraged to pursue a career in medicine leading her to become the chief of the genetics division of the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. “Whatever he told me to do, I succeeded. Bob played a major role throughout my life as a colleague and a good friend. We will miss him deeply.”

His long-term office mate professor emeritus Harold Martinson remembered Smith especially for his wonderful mentorship over the years — his generous sharing of his laboratory space and facilities, his scientific influence and his friendship. 

“Among the real high points of divisional life, before Bob cast his lot full-time with industry, were the frequent divisional get-togethers at his home in Santa Monica” Martinson said. “I enjoyed going through the house with Bob and looking at all of his beautiful woodwork.”

Smith was born in Vancouver, Canada on Dec. 22, 1928 and received his undergraduate and master’s degrees in microbiology from the University of British Columbia in 1952 and 1953. He then came to the United States to join the biochemistry doctoral program at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, working with the renowned biochemist Irwin Gunsalus. He received his doctorate in 1957, and then stayed on at Illinois a year as an instructor before coming to UCLA.

At UCLA, Smith quickly established a vigorous research program in biochemistry that focused on cancer biology and the biological uses of phosphorous-nitrogen linkages. In 1960, he was asked to join the board of directors of ICN Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which soon after became a public company on the New York Stock Exchange. In this role, Smith was instrumental in the development of the anti-viral drug ribavirin, a medication now on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines.

In 2008, Smith was inducted into the Comox Valley Walk of Achievement in British Columbia for his work in drug discovery. He was cited for helping to save thousands of lives over the years by pioneering the anti-viral field with the discovery of the broad spectrum nucleoside analog ribavirin now used to treat respiratory syncytial virus, hepatitis C and viral hemorrhagic fever. 

The family requests that instead of flowers, donations can be made to the Roberts A. Smith Graduate Award for the Study of Biochemistry. All donations will be matched dollar for dollar by the department of chemistry and biochemistry.

Checks should be payable to: “The UCLA Foundation” and include on the memo line “Roberts A. Smith Graduate Student Award Fund - #81707E.”

Checks should be mailed to:

Chair’s Office
UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
607 Charles E. Young Drive, East
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1569

A memorial gathering is planned for the UCLA campus. Please contact chair@chem.ucla.edu if you would like to be notified of the event. 

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