Woodward, Robert Burns (1917-1979) was an American chemist who won the 1965 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in synthetic organic chemistry. This field involves combining chemical elements and compounds to duplicate substances found in nature or to produce compounds not found in nature. Woodward developed methods for making such organic (carbon-containing) compounds as chlorophyll, cortisone, and quinine. For his contributions to the field of synthetic organic chemistry, scientists recognized him as the most accomplished scientist in that field.
Woodward was born in Boston on April 10, 1917, the only child of Margaret (Burns) Woodward, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, and Arthur Chester Woodward. Arthur Woodward died in 1918, when Woodward was 1 year old. Woodward became interested in chemistry at a very early age, in particular playing with a child's chemistry set. He attended primary and secondary public schools in Quincy, a suburb of Boston. He graduated from Quincy High School at the age of 16, with a knowledge of organic chemistry very advanced for his age. He entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at 16. Because he spent most of his time in the library or the laboratory instead of in classes, the university allowed him to create his own curriculum (plan of study) and gave him laboratory space to conduct research. Woodward published his first scientific paper in 1934. He received a B.S. degree in 1936 at age 19, and received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry in 1937 at age 20.
After teaching at the University of Illinois in 1937, Woodward joined Harvard University. In 1938, he became research assistant to Professor Elmer P. Kohler and then became a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows. In 1941, he became an instructor in chemistry, and progressed to an appointment as full professor in 1950. He taught at Harvard until his death.
Woodward's interests in chemistry were broad, but his main area of investigation was with natural products. From 1940 to 1942, he published four papers on rules for the correlation of ultraviolet spectroscopy with molecular structure. Ultraviolet spectroscopy is the study of the ultraviolet radiation absorbed by molecular substances. The rules became known as the Woodward Rules.
In a seven-year period, Woodward's Harvard laboratory made several notable achievements. In 1944, he and another scientist made the first total synthesis of quinine; in 1947, the first complete polymerization of protein analogues; and in 1951, the first total synthesis of a steroid.
Quinine is a drug that had long been made from the bark of the cinchona tree, found in the Andes mountain range of South America. It was once the only known treatment for malaria. World War II (1939-1945) caused a shortage of quinine, which was used in manufacturing lenses in addition to its valuable purpose in reducing malarial fevers. In the early 1940's, Woodward became a consultant for the Polaroid Corporation, manufacturers of optical materials. Woodward convinced Polaroid to support research into a substitute for the quinine crystals used for lenses. With scientist William E. Doering of Columbia University, Woodward achieved the first synthesis of quinine in 1944 after only 14 months of experimentation.
They used a coal tar derivative known as ben-zaldehyde. Coal tar is a thick, black liquid obtained as a by-product in the manufacture of coke and coke oven gas from soft coal. A number of chemicals are obtained from coal tar. Beginning with a simple molecule. Woodward added or removed carbon atoms until he formed the skeleton of the desired product. He then attached side groups to form the desired molecule. The process of synthesizing quinine involved 17 conversions to construct the carbon structure and then a number of more reactions to make it quinine. Quinine's formula is C2H24N2O2 · 3H2O. Synthetic drugs that have replaced quinine in treatment of malaria now include chloroquine, mefloquine, and primaquine.
Three years after synthesizing quinine, in collaboration with the Harvard organic chemist Charles H. Schramm, Woodward created a protein analogue. Proteins are large, complex molecules made up of smaller units called amino acids. The amino acids are linked together into long chains called polypeptides. Schramm and Woodward created a protein analogue by joining units of amino acids into a long chain. The resulting polypeptides were later used in the manufacture of plastics and artificial antibiotics. They were also a valuable tool for the study of protein metabolism.
Woodward headed the first team to synthesize a steroid, a class of chemical compounds important in chemistry, biology, and medicine. Steroids include sterols, such as cholesterol; bile acids from the liver; adrenal hormones; and sex hormones, such as estrogens and androgens. In 1951, the team achieved the first total synthesis of a steroid, using orthotoluidine, a coal-tar derivative. They synthesized the steroids cholesterol and cortisone.
Woodward went on to synthesize other complex compounds, including lanosterol (1954), strychnine and lysergic acid (1954), reserpine (1956), and colchicine (1963). Woodward determined the structure of penicillin in 1945 and patulin in 1950. In 1960, Woodward completed the synthesis of chlorophyll, which took five years. Chlorophyll is the green pigment in plants that absorbs light energy for use in photosynthesis, a food-making process that occurs in green plants.
In the 1970's, Woodward completed a synthesis of vitamin B12. He also determined the molecular structures of Aureomycin and Terramycin. Aureomycin is the trademark name for chlortetracy-cline, an antibiotic used to check or kill certain bacterial infections and viruses. Terramycin is the trademark for the antibiotic oxytetracycline. It is derived from a microorganism found in the soil.
Woodward's discoveries led to numerous advances in medicine, pharmacology, antibiotic research, and plastics development. The Ciba pharmaceutical company honored Woodward by founding the Woodward Research Institute in Basel, Switzerland, in 1963. Woodward directed the institute in addition to his work at Harvard.
Woodward held numerous university degrees, including ones from Yale, the University of Chicago, Cambridge, and Columbia. Among his numerous awards were the Davy Medal from the Royal Society in 1959, the National Medal of Science in 1964, and the Lavoisier Medal of the French Chemical Society in 1968. Woodward was a member or honorary member of top scientific academies from around the world, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Society of London.
With Robert Robinson, Woodward founded the journals of organic chemistry Tetrahedron and Tetrahedron Letters and served on their editorial boards. He was a member of the board of governors of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
Woodward died of a heart attack at age 62 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, July 8, 1979. At the time of his death, he was working on the synthesis of erythromycin, an antibiotic used to treat a wide variety of bacterial infections, such as respiratory tract infections, middle ear infections, and skin infections.