November 21, 2000
Volume 47
Number 13

National Medal of Science: Dr. Hirschmann

Penn chemist, Dr. Ralph F. Hirschmann, is a recipient of the 2000 National Medal of Science, President Bill Clinton announced on November 13. Dr. Hirschmann and the eleven other honorees will receive their medals at a White House dinner on 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. While at Merck and since coming to Penn, he has fostered interdisciplinary research as well as collaborations between academia and industry

"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."

"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."

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.

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, where he rose 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, Dr. 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 also served on a study section of the NIH and on committees of the National Research Council and the NSF.

Sundance Stalemate

Two years ago when Robert Redford rode into town and unveiled his plans for his first Sundance Cinema in the country to be built here at Penn, there were high hopes for the multi-screen complex which was to rise at the southwest corner of 40th and Walnut.

Last week, Executive Vice President John Fry announced that General Cinemas-which was to have operated and financed the project-filed for bankruptcy in October. General Cinemas had a AA credit rating, he said. They were not the only national movie chain to have filed: five other national chains filed for bankruptcy in the past 14 months.

Mr. Fry said that Sundance-the producer of the theater -had assured him that they had other financial backing from a reputable third party. He said Penn found out earlier this month that Sundance was not able to secure alternate funding.

Mr. Fry said that Penn-the landlord of the $20 million complex-is committed to reviving the project , to keeping the concept intact, with high quality programming. He is attempting to find a third party to replace the equity that would have been General Cinema's share.

During the past several months, Mr. Redford has shown his commitment by contributing his own money in an attempt to bridge this project until finding a new partner. However, at this juncture, it is unclear what role Mr. Redford will have in the project as it evolves. Mr. Fry said that, "we're doing everything we can to keep him in but there's no guarantee."

Construction of the seven-screen complex is now halfway completed and is now on hold for several weeks. The site was to have also included a restaurant, a coffee bar and other amenities such as a film library and a community screening room. It was originally set to open this year.

Ivy Title for Penn Quakers

Penn's 45-15 win over Cornell last Saturday clinched the Ivy Title for the Penn Quakers. It was the second Ivy League championship in three years. The Red and Blue finished the football season with a 6-1 Ivy League record, only having lost to Yale. Penn senior kicker Jason Feinberg became Penn's all-time leading scorer. Junior quarterback Gavin Hoffman became the first Penn quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season; his 3,214 yards was just 39 yards short of the Ivy League record. He finished third in the country in passing efficiency and threw 24 touchdowns.

Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 13, November 21, 2000