Special Bulletin

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 in chemistry.

"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.

Posted 11/13/2000