UCLA scientist created field of host-guest chemistry, awarded National Medal of Science, taught introductory chemistry to thousands of undergraduates
Donald J. Cram, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who taught and conducted research at UCLA for more than 50 years and is remembered by thousands of undergraduates for singing and playing guitar in class, died of cancer June 17 at his home in Palm Desert. He was 82.
A renowned scientist who was as comfortable riding the waves with friends in the San Onofre Surfing Club as he was in his lab at UCLA constructing complex molecular models, Cram won the Nobel Prize in 1987 and the National Medal of Science in 1993 for his work in host-guest chemistry, a field he helped to create. In 1998, he was ranked among the 75 most important chemists of the past 75 years by Chemical and Engineering News.
Donald Cram stands alone in the incredible variety, beauty and depth of his accomplishments,” read the citation for Cram’s National Medal of Science. “His investigations have helped give this science its form and sophistication. He truly brought art to science by making his science an art.”
A chemist at UCLA since 1947, Cram opened broad new avenues for exploration across organic chemistry, with applications in both basic research as well as specific fields, such as pharmaceutical production and the medical testing industry.
“Don's brilliant creativity, integrity, and enthusiasm for life and science have forever changed teaching in organic chemistry, and altered the shape and substance of the chemical research frontier,” said M. Frederick Hawthorne, university professor of chemistry at UCLA and one of Cram's earliest graduate students. “Don was a giant in organic chemistry; his research affects the many ways organic chemistry now appears in our daily lives.”
In his host-guest research, Cram created synthetic host molecules that mimic some of the actions that enzymes perform in cells. Since 1970, he and his colleagues designed and prepared more than 1,000 hosts — each with unique chemical and physical properties.
These molecules are designed to attract and bind — in other words, to serve as hosts — to specific guest molecules, which can be either organic molecules or inorganic ions.
“This is the art of the possible,” Cram told a reporter in 1986. “What is possible, but has not been done, yet is like an enemy. You have to conduct intelligence operations on the behavior of organic molecules and spy on their behavior. You have to piece together hints and clues, and try to put yourself in the mind of enemy. You have to take the implicit and make 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 of Universite Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France, and Charles Pedersen, a chemist at E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.
“Don set extremely high standards in his field, and he and colleague Saul Winstein were in large part responsible for UCLA's high standing in organic chemistry,” said William Gelbart, chair of the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Don was driven by the challenge of doing creative work, and he left that legacy in hundreds of his students.”
After winning the Nobel Prize and entering his 70s, Cram embarked on a bold and sophisticated extension of his original work: a new field he called “carceplex” chemistry, a process in which one molecule (a carcerand) captures another inside of it — with a result that creates a new phase of matter.
Born in 1919 in Vermont, Cram developed an interest in chemistry in his senior year of high school. He received his B.S. in chemistry at Rollins College in 1941. He earned his master's degree in organic chemistry at the University of Nebraska; he completed his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1947 after serving during World War II as a research chemist at Merck & Co., where he worked on the penicillin program.
“In my first year of college, I was told by my chemistry professor — now an old friend — that academic research is a wonderful profession, but I did not have a good 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 organic chemistry — one of which has been translated into 11 languages. He trained more than 200 graduate students and taught some 8,000 UCLA undergraduates in his courses, including several of the introductory classes taught in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Many of his students recall Cram, a long-time guitar player, strumming and singing folk songs in class at the end of the academic term.
"UCLA has lost a great friend and colleague -- a scientist of world standing, a marvelous teacher, and an energetic presence on our campus," said UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale. "Don was a brilliant scholar and a beloved faculty member who honored us by being part of the UCLA family across seven decades. We will remember him as one of the eminent figures in UCLA history."
Cram was honored nationally and internationally for his research, including the Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry, the top honor presented by the American Chemical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences Award in the Chemical Sciences. He was the first holder of UCLA's Saul Winstein Endowed Chair in Organic Chemistry, and was named university professor in 1988.
Cram was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1961 and received the American Chemical Society Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry in 1965. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1967. In 1974, he received the ACS Cope Award for Distinguished Achievement in Organic Chemistry, and was also named California Scientist of the Year.
Cram received the Southern California ACS Tolman Award and the Chicago Section ACS Gibbs Medal in 1985. He received the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences 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, Cram said, “when I first heard the word ‘research,’ it meant to me that the only limitations are your own resourcefulness and creativity, and that was precisely what I wanted. The physical and life sciences are the main frontiers left in the world today for exercising the pioneer spirit.”
Cram was one of five UCLA scientists to win the Nobel Prize. The other four Nobel Laureates are chemists Paul Boyer (1997) and Willard Libby (1960), physicist Julian Schwinger (1965), and pharmacologist Louis Ignarro (1998).
Cram is survived by his wife, Caroline, and sisters Margaret Fitzgibbon and Kathleen McLean. In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made in Cram’s name to the charity of the donor’s choice.
The UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry will hold a memorial service this fall to honor Cram's achievements. For more information about the service, contact the department at (310) 825-3958.