Professor Herbert Hauptman: Nobel Prize winner


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The Independent Online

Herbert Hauptman was the co-recipient of the 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering work on determining molecular structures using X-ray crystallography. Withhis co-winner Jerome Karle, he developed a mathematical method that revolutionised chemistry and opened a new era in research in the determination of molecular structures of crystallised materials.

This ground-breaking work on uncovering and providing more accurate analysis of molecular structures accelerated medical research and revolutionised the research and development of new drugs. It allowed crystallographers to study thousands of molecules whose structures were previously inaccessible.

Hauptman and Karle received the Nobel Prize more than 30 years after they had first presented their main ideas, in the early 1950s. Before their research began it could take months or years to establish the structure of a simple antibiotic molecule that had only 15 atoms. Following their work, it became possible to determine the structure of a 50-atom molecule in two days.

Upon awarding the pair their prize, the Academy judges noted that itwas "almost impossible" to give an example in the field of chemistry where the Hauptman-Karle method was not being used, adding that it had helped in the development of hundreds of modern drugs.

The method became indispensable to modern chemistry and the pharmaceutical industry as it allowedscientists to make three-dimensional representations of drugs in order tounderstand what they looked like and to understand how they worked. Practical applications of Hauptman's"direct method" include hormones analysis, improved fertilisers, and the development of new antibiotics and pharmaceuticals.

With a clearer image of the structure of hormones and other biological molecules, researchers better understood the chemistry of the body and of drugs used to treat various illnesses. For example, once they understood the structure of encephalin, pain-control substances found naturally in the body, they were able to make progress in developing new pain-killing drugs.

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1917, Herbert Aaron Hauptman was the oldest of three sons to the émigrés, Israel and Leah. Graduating with a mathematics degree in 1937 from New York's City College, he completed his master's at Columbia University in 1939.

After serving in the US Navy as a weather forecaster in the Pacific during the Second World War, Hauptman joined the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC in 1947, where he met his former classmate Jerome Karle. He received his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Maryland in 1955. At the labs the pair turned their attention to X-ray crystallography, a means of deducing the three-dimensional structure of a molecule by analysing how a crystal form of the molecule scatters a beam of X-rays aimed at it. The scattering pattern was recorded as points of light on X-ray film. However, the method had limitations and researchers could do no more than draw inferences.

Between 1950 and 1956, the duo's mathematical approach eliminated the guesswork. Using probability theory to interpret the light patterns on X-ray film, they calculated the angles at which the X-ray beams were deflected as they passed near the electrons surrounding the nucleus of an atom. They then came up with equations that translated this information into maps that pinpointed the location of individual atoms.

Their mathematical approach was initially controversial among chemists and was ignored for years. During the 1970s its acceptance grew as the introduction of computers made their techniques easier to apply.

In 1970, unwilling to shift the focus of his naval research to laser-guided missiles, Hauptman joined the Medical Foundation of Buffalo (since 1994 the Hauptman-Woodward Institute), a private foundation specialising in endocrine research. He became its research director two years later and its president in 1988. He was also professor of biophysics at the State University at Buffalo.

Hauptman wrote more than 170 publications and received many awards including the American Academy of Achievement Gold Plate Award 1986. Outside the field of scientific research, he was a keen violinist and made stained-glass artwork inspired by mathematical shapes, a collection of which is displayed at the Institute. He was a confirmed atheist, once declaring that a belief in God, is not only incompatible with good science, but is "damaging to the well-being of the human race."

Hauptman is survived by his wife, Edith, and their two daughters.

Herbert Aaron Hauptman, research scientist: born New York 14 February 1917; married 1940 Edith Citrynell (two daughters); died Buffalo, New York 23 October 2011.