Location: Fifth Floor, West Wing, North Wall, Sequence 6
Source: Professor Westheimer
Sponsor: Arnold C. Ott
In a distinguished career, Westheimer led the way in applying physical organic methods to bioorganic chemical reaction mechanisms. He demonstrated (with B. Vennesland) direct and stereospecific hydrogen transfer in biochemical oxidation-reduction reactions that require the coenzyme nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+). In the biologically significant hydrolysis of phosphate esters, he discovered the importance of pseudorotation at phosphorus. Other major contributions in over 200 publications include deriving equations for calculating electrostatic effects in organic chemistry (with J. G. Kirkwood, see portrait), inventing in connection with hindered rotation in biphenyls of what is now known as molecular mechanics, and inventing photoaffinity labelling to study active sites of enzymes. He also elucidated the mechanisms of chromic acid oxidations and of the metal ion catalyzed and enzymic decarboxylation of β-keto acids.
Born in Baltimore, MD, Westheimer took his undergraduate degree at Dartmouth and his M.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard (1935). He was on the faculty at Chicago (1936-1953), then moved to Harvard where he became Morris Loeb Professor (now Emeritus). An excellent lecturer and compassionate teacher, Westheimer had an abiding interest in chemical education. In 1964-5 he chaired a NAS committee on the survey of chemistry; its report, which became known as the Westheimer Report, provided the first real assessment of chemistry in the affairs of U.S. citizens. Among Westheimer's many awards are the James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry (1970), the Cope Award (1982), the National Medal of Science (1986), the Priestley Medal (1988) and the Nakanishi Prize (1997).