National Medal of Science: Ralph F. Hirschmann
President Bill Clinton
announced today that Penn chemist Dr. Ralph F. Hirschmann, is a recipient
of the 2000 National Medal of Science. Dr. Hirschmann and the other eleven
honorees will receive their medals at a White House dinner December 1.
Dr. Hirschmann, the Rao Makineni Professor of Bioorganic Chemistry, joined
Penn in 1987 after retiring as Merck's senior vice president of basic research.
He was affiliated with Merck for 37 years, during which time he contributed
to the development of several important drugs. He has fostered interdisciplinary
research as well as collaborations between academia and industry while at
Merck and since coming to Penn.
"These exceptional scientists and engineers have transformed our
world and enhanced our daily lives," President Clinton said. "Their
imagination and ingenuity will continue to inspire future generations of
American scientists to remain at the cutting edge of scientific discovery
and technological innovation."
A half-dozen widely used medications stem from Dr. Hirschmann's tenure
as Merck's head of basic research, including the parasite-fighting Ivomec,
now used to combat river blindness in developing nations. The work of his
colleagues at Merck has also led to drugs to treat hypertension, congestive
heart failure, severe infection and hypercholesterolemia.
Dr. Hirschmann's seminal contributions to organic and medicinal chemistry
also include the first chemical synthesis in solution of an enzyme, ribonuclease,
in 1969, regarded as one of synthetic organic chemistry's noteworthy achievements
of the 20th Century. Early in his career, in 1952, he discovered that chemical
transformations can be controlled at the same time by both the disposition
of electrons and the geometric arrangement of atoms. This concept, which
Dr. Hirschmann termed stereoelectronic control, has gained great importance
"This is a truly great honor and we offer our warmest congratulations
to an extraordinary Penn researcher and member of the faculty," said
Penn President Judith Rodin. "Ralph Hirschmann is an outstanding scientist
whose pathbreaking work in the field of chemistry has led to the development
of many lifesaving medicines. His creativity and vision have led to a unique
collaborative research program between the University and the biomedical
industry that will continue to produce new bodies of knowledge for the benefit
of society for many years to come."
Dr. Hirschmann was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences in 1981 and elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1999.
He has also received the Arthur C. Cope Medal--the American Chemical Society's
highest honor for organic chemists--and an issue of the Journal of Medicinal
Chemistry was dedicated to him in 1992.
A native of Germany, Dr. Hirschmann received his baccalaureate from
Oberlin College and his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. After
three years of Army service in the Pacific Theater during World War II,
he joined Merck as a process research chemist in 1950, rising to senior
vice president of basic research by 1978. During his time in that post,
Merck developed Mevacor, Vasotec, Prinivil, Primaxin and Proscar.
In addition to his Penn post, Hirschmann served from 1987 to 1999 as
University Professor of Biomedical Research at the Medical University of
South Carolina; that university and Wisconsin have both established Ralph
F. Hirschmann professorships in his honor. He holds honorary doctorates
from these two institutions as well as Oberlin, where he also served on
the Board of Trustees.
Dr. Hirschmann has authored some 150 scientific papers, primarily on
steroid and peptide/protein research, and is named inventor or co-inventor
on nearly 100 patents. He was chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Gordon
Research Conference in 1984-85 and currently serves on the editorial or
advisory boards of numerous international journals. He served also on a
study section of the National Institutes of Health and on committees of
the National Research Council and the National Science Foundation.