After more than 20 years with the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., Herbert A. Hauptman, Ph.D. joined the staff of the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute in 1970. He was looking for a fresh venue in which to quietly practice his craft. Then, in 1985, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, changing his life forever. A mathematician by training, Dr. Hauptman would seem to be an unlikely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. However, upon further investigation, the reasons for this award become obvious. Although he had taken only one chemistry course in his life, he was able to use classical mathematics to resolve an issue that had stymied chemists for decades.
Around 1950, Dr. Hauptman turned his attention to an interesting puzzle regarding the structure of crystals. Since 1912, chemists had known that a beam of X-rays directed towards a crystal is scattered when it strikes atoms, and the scattered radiation forms a pattern that can be recorded on film. Although the positions of the atoms in the crystal determine the nature of this so-called diffraction pattern, the puzzle for chemists was that they could not readily work backwards from the diffraction data to the atomic arrangement. After perplexing chemists for more than forty years, this problem was finally solved by Dr. Hauptman’s mathematical approach. Unfortunately, the procedures, known as “direct methods,” that he developed were not immediately understood and appreciated by the chemists who study crystals (crystallographers), and it was many years before he received the recognition he deserved. Today, there are more than 12,000 crystallographers worldwide, and most or all of them use these techniques.
The structures of thousands of molecules have now been solved by crystallographers using Hauptman’s direct methods, and many new molecular structures are added to the list each year. As a result of the information obtained in these studies, many new drugs have been designed. Shortly after he received the Nobel Prize, the Buffalo News stated that “Hauptman…undoubtedly saved more lives…than anyone else in recent history…. From…Nobel-winning research in the 1950s have come drugs that combat heart disease and other ailments, and the promise of even more advances in the future.”
Dr. Hauptman’s current work builds on his earlier Nobel-winning research. He and his colleagues at the Hauptman-Woodward Institute are presently working to extend the methods of structure determination to very large molecules of biological importance, including the proteins that are the targets for drug-design efforts. Indeed, they have achieved new success in recent years by developing a procedure known as “Shake-and Bake” that has greatly extended the power of direct methods. Currently serving, at age 85, as President of the research institute that bears his name, Dr. Hauptman does not know the meaning of “slowing down” or, for that matter, “retirement”. He continues his work in earnest with the hope that his latest contributions will also have an impact on health care. In a January 1987 article that appeared in Western New York Magazine honoring him as “Western New Yorker of the Year”, Dr. Hauptman said, “When you look at the great strides that were made against polio and tuberculosis, those breakthroughs could not have been made without research that was done 50 or 100 years earlier…. And once in a while, with a little luck, lightning strikes….”