From 6th through 12th grades I attended a Quaker school on the Philadelphia city line. Twice a week the entire school attended Quaker Meeting, silent gatherings except when someone received a personal call to speak.
I never got a call, but nonetheless my head was full: I thought about fishing and boats. Or else I thought about when next I could get from Philadelphia to our cottage on the New Jersey Shore in order to go out fishing in a boat. Beneath my picture in one high school yearbook it says, “I’m going to the Shore”.
While I had an overwhelming passion for fishing, school I merely enjoyed and I never planned to be a scientist. In fact, passion, not planning, is the engine driving all my thought and action. The almost unimaginably good fortune of my youth was that other people made such very, very good plans and choices for me.
My parents selected the excellent Friends Central School where, fortuitously, Clayton Farraday was both a science teacher and the school’s beloved Mr. Chips. The counselors there decided, wisely, that I should attend a college rather than a large university, and I departed Philadelphia for Dartmouth College in the fall of 1959. Though literature courses there were my favorites, I was a pre-medical student solely because my parents always hoped that I’d become an MD like my father. Pre-meds majored in chemistry or biology, and between the two I leaned toward chemistry. I didn’t get really interested, however, until I had two semesters of organic my sophomore year from a young chemistry professor who chose me to do research in his lab. When I graduated Dartmouth a few years later, in 1963, the same prof called my next move, a PhD in organic chemistry instead of medical school. He even chose the graduate school I attended and my research supervisor there. Such a strong intervention in a student’s life is no doubt unusual, but the precipitating events were unusual, too.
Generally speaking, colleges have the best undergraduate teaching, and universities, whose labs are filled by graduate and post-graduate students, have the best research. When I arrived at Dartmouth College in 1959, the chemistry department had a graduate program, which meant great teachers who were just as good at research. However, the program was small, and only a master’s degree was awarded, so consequently professors were perpetually hungry for more manpower for their labs, more “hands”. Undergraduates who performed well in lab courses were actively recruited to do “real” graduate- level research.
Thomas A. Spencer, a brand-new assistant professor of chemistry, arrived at Dartmouth when I did, and I was part of his research group for three years. Because Tom was (and still is) so smart and such a good chemist, he could recognize not just talent, but the potential to do something significant; because Tom was also born a great teacher, he was obliged to give a swift kick to my comfortable obliviousness. Fishing, now in the form of working all summer on charter boats, continued as my abiding passion, which meant I continued to need a wise person to make good decisions for me. If some variables in my adult life were changed, I might still have made it onto these pages, but it never would have happened without Tom Spencer.
Since some family background and professional activities (and lots more about fishing) are in the Nobel lecture that follows, and since the standard biographical folderol is most easily found online at www.scripps.edu/ chem/sharpless/, I hope to provide a more interesting read with the highly subjective and largely unorthodox personal information that follows.
I met my future wife, Jan Dueser, at a beach party at San Gregorio, west across the foothills from Stanford University. I was a first-year graduate student, and she was a Stanford sophomore and, on that day, my roommate’s date. I admired her touch football form, and she entrusted me with her delicate wristwatch, which I lost in the sand. We were married about a year-and-a-half later, on April 28, 1965, my 24th birthday, at the Palo Alto courthouse. David Schooley, a fellow chemistry grad student and now a professor at University of Nevada, Reno, was our best man.
Jan and I practiced with dogs before we had children; chemists still ask about our first, the black and enormous Lionel, a regular laboratory and classroom visitor at MIT. Our daughter Hannah (whose nickname “Pippi”, comes from “pipette”, not from Miss Longstocking) was born in 1976, and is a middle school teacher in Boston. To chemists who’ve attended my seminars, she is permanently six years old, the familiar Alice in Wonderland who gazes at the huge book of Looking Glass Sugars. William (“Will”) and Isaac (“Ike”) followed Hannah at two-year intervals. Both of our sons are still college undergraduates. None of our children has much interest in science, and I’m sorry, but not disappointed, that that is so.
My passion for chemistry was preceded by a passion for fishing.
With no children at home any more, dogs are, once again, our companions of choice – for play, for exercise and for hanging out with in bed. I haven’t gone fishing for probably over thirty years, but the ocean is still programmed into me like the birth stream of a salmon. One of the glories of moving to Scripps in 1990 has been seeing the Pacific Ocean every day, and, when its temperature reaches 70° (July or August), swimming in it every day as well. In windy New England I wind-surfed and we loved our little catamaran; San Diego’s sail-less ocean vistas still seem weird.
My most important award, the greatest honor I’ve ever received, and the grandest and most memorable occasions I’ve ever witnessed, are, of course, benefits of sharing the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. But other honors have peerless characteristics as well, notably:
The heaviest object in our bank deposit box is the 1995 King Faisal Prize for Science medal; the most beautiful one is the 1988 Prelog Medal from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). Its exquisite relief rendering of Old Vlado’s profile rivals the most beautiful portraits found on coins from antiquity, and the gold has a gorgeous, pliant, velvety warmth that has to be seen to be believed (by appointment only). A friend once asked, quite appropriately, if the portrait was of Alexander the Great.
Three unique objects, and I treasure each one, celebrate the day in 1995 when I received an honorary doctorate from Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology. My only top hat, frequently brought out for guests to admire, bears the Institute’s seal; my only ring, always admired when I wear it, is a heavy gold band surrounded by a garland of leaves and acorns in deep relief. These two I share with all the Institute’s doctoral recipients, but I also have a large brass cannon shell casing, fired during the cannon salute that accompanied the conferring of the degree and the ceremonial placing of the hat on my head. The shell sits on my desk at home.
Only one award commemoration of mine is lettered on real vellum, and it is the largest one, as well: in both English and Hebrew the 1998 Harvey Science and Technology Prize of the Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa’s Technion, is proclaimed.
In the category “news received most delightfully”, the winner is… an April, 1984, telephone call Jan took in a Jacksonville, Florida, hotel room all five of us were sharing while I attended a meeting. On the line from Washington, D.C. was my MIT colleague George Büchi, the most generous and thoughtful colleague I have ever known. George said he was calling because it was announced just minutes before that I had been elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. When Jan replied that she’d pass the message on, George said, no, she must go immediately to the meeting room and give me the message. Our children were too young to be left alone, especially since the meeting room was next to a swimming pool. I was giving my talk when I saw Jan and the three children, and all of them on tiptoes, enter the room and move along the back in the semi-darkness. She was looking for a familiar face, and she whispered the message when she found one. I stopped talking as Jan’s informant walked to the front of the room and asked for the lights to be brought up so he could make an important announcement. Why the audience was so enthusiastic I wasn’t quite sure. Not only did I not know I’d been nominated, I didn’t even know one had to be nominated. I thought the National Academy was something like a high-level appointed government advisory committee. Learning otherwise was a wonderful surprise.
Inaugural events always have special significance and vivid memories; these “firsts” mean a lot to me:
Receiving the first Paul Janssen Prize for Creativity in Organic Synthesis, presented by HRH Prince (now King) Albert of Belgium. Security forces were everywhere that day in 1986, and I asked Prince Albert if having to travel with such a large group wasn’t inconvenient. No, he replied, all those soldiers were required because I was an American – he didn’t need them.
Being Texas A & M’s first Barton Lecturer, 1997. Nothing is dearer me than having been selected by Sir Derek, my career-long scientific role model and mentor, to deliver the first edition of a lectureship endowed in his honor, the only Barton Lecture to take place before his death in 1998.
Launching the University of Sydney’s Cornforth Foundation for Chemistry (which honors both Rita and Kappa) with the inaugural Cornforth lecture in 2002. Like Sir Derek, Sir John is one of our gods; I stand awed at having participated in these events honoring them.
And, finally, if I had a crown, its jewels would be the 75-or-so former Sharpless Group members who are research professors. The training received in the group is neither predictable nor quantifiable; likewise, it is not intended to produce a product that, for example, industry wants. Since nothing original is intentionally discovered by scientists who cannot tolerate (indeed, they should welcome it) a high degree of uncertainty, group membership does not guarantee results. Because of the nature of our research, however, group members preselect themselves and possess a remarkably high degree of independence of thought as well as scientific motives tilted toward discovery, not reward. As a group, they hold superior standards for judging the significance of research, and I share with all them all of the glory that is a Nobel Prize.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.