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Leading figure in organic chemistry dies at 82

STANFORD -- William S. Johnson, generally regarded as one of the major figures in 20th-century organic chemistry, died at his home on Saturday, Aug. 19, following several months of failing health due to circulatory and heart problems.

During a prolific scientific career, Johnson devised highly efficient ways for making a broad variety of biologically important chemical compounds including steroids, vitamins and hormones. In recognition of his contributions he received the National Medal of Science and virtually every major chemistry award and honor.

In addition, as executive head of the Stanford chemistry department from 1960 to 1969, Johnson was the principal architect of an expansion that elevated the department to one of the top-ranked university chemistry programs in the world.

"Professor Johnson designed many of the tools and the methodologies that make it possible for us to create the complex molecular structures found in pharmaceuticals and a variety of other materials that we use today," said Stanford chemistry Professor Barry M. Trost.

An example of Johnson's work involves the synthesis of the corticoid steroids used to treat inflammation in wounds. These were first synthesized during World War II, but the process was tremendously difficult. Johnson found a way to create these compounds that reduced the number of steps required by two-thirds. Similarly, he developed highly efficient ways of making other adrenocortical hormones used to treat different types of inflammation including arthritis, the male hormone testosterone, the female hormone progesterone, the juvenile growth hormone that controls growth in insects and is used for pest control, the bacterial growth factor lipoic acid and the vitamin alpha-tocopherol.

Most of Johnson's breakthrough chemical syntheses were the result of an insightful research strategy, which he called the "biomimetic approach to total synthesis." Johnson found ways of imitating the biological processes by which such highly complex molecules were created, rather than following the classic process of synthesis, which can be more cumbersome. Johnson found methods for synthesizing such compounds that imitate the reactions carried out in living organisms, but did so without relying on the specialized catalysts, called enzymes, that are extensively used in such systems.

"When he and several others began on this path in the 1940s, it was the equivalent of trying to climb Mount Everest for the first time. The complexity of the structures was so immense that many scientists considered the effort to be close to folly," Trost said.

According to Stanford chemistry professor and father of the birth control pill Carl Djerassi, "He is one of the great organic chemists of the post-war period. He was enormously intellectual, a fantastic colleague, and his personal modesty was really extraordinary."

When Stanford vice president and provost Frederick E. Terman brought Johnson from the University of Wisconsin as part of Terman's ambitious post-war plans to strengthen the Stanford faculty, he was promised a new chemistry building and the resources to build up the department. During a nine-year period, he added 13 new faculty appointments, among them Carl Djerassi, Paul Flory, Henry Taube and Harden McConnell. During this period Stanford's chemistry department gained its reputation as one of the world's best. Subsequently, both Flory and Taube received Nobel Prizes for their work.

"[Johnson] did an exceptionally good job running the department. He handled some very sensitive affairs extremely well, yet he was willing to make hard decisions. He was very fair and didn't play favorites. He was extremely responsible in looking after the affairs of the department. Few people have been able to keep the love and respect of their coworkers the way Bill did," commented Taube.

Taube's sentiments are echoed by chemistry Professor Emeritus Harry S. Mosher, who preceded Johnson at Stanford. "Bill inherited a fairly large faculty. He appreciated us and worked well with us. He ran the department beautifully. He was a good friend to everyone in the department."

According to colleagues, Johnson was a very humble person who was lavish in praise of others but did not blow his own horn. Djerassi remembers dropping by Johnson's office one day and finding several postdoctoral students there, eating cheese and drinking champagne out of plastic foam cups. When Djerassi asked what was going on, Johnson told him that they were celebrating his 80th birthday.

"This is usually a big event, something the whole department should be celebrating. But all he wanted was a modest party with his postdocs," Djerassi said.

In 1969, when Johnson resigned from his position as head of the department, he was appointed Jackson-Wood Professor of Chemistry. He held this endowed chair until 1978, when he became emeritus.

In his 53-year career, Johnson worked with more than 100 predoctoral and 200 postdoctoral students. He published more than 250 scientific papers. Until his recent illness, he had continued an active research program, working with four postdoctoral collaborators.

"Very few people have done research so well, or done it so long," said Djerassi, who was a graduate student at Wisconsin when Johnson taught there and was one of the scientists that he brought with him to Stanford.

Ten years ago, the department set up an annual symposium in Johnson's honor. It has become a major meeting for the organic chemistry community and many of the top people in the world attend regularly.

"I'm enormously happy that he enjoyed nine of these meetings. I was hoping that he would be there for the tenth as well. But I am glad that we could honor him while he was alive," Djerassi said.

The 10th annual Johnson symposium is scheduled for Oct. 6-7.

Johnson is survived by his wife, Barbara. No memorial service is planned and she asks that no flowers be sent.


Photo available electronically by anonymous ftp at under the filename "Johnson, William S."


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