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Columbia Chemist Koji Nakanishi Wins Prestigious Japanese Prize

By Hannah Fairfield

Koji Nakanishi

Columbia chemist Koji Nakanishi was recently awarded one of Japan's highest honors, the title "Person of Cultural Merit" for his breakthrough research in the organic chemistry of natural products.

"I was grateful to receive the prize, and surprised because I have lived away from Japan for 30 years," said Nakanishi, who came to the United States in 1969 to establish his natural products research lab at Columbia. "Receiving the award from the Emperor and Empress was a high honor."

For over 50 years, Nakanishi, the Centennial Professor of Chemistry, has been studying the complexities of biologically active compounds, and his discoveries include determining the chemical structures of more than 180 compounds produced by animals, plants and microorganisms, such as gingko biloba tree extract, insect molting hormones, and wasp and snake venoms. His research has led to commercial and therapeutic uses of many natural products and his results have had important applications to cancer research and pest management. He has also been studying the mechanism of vision since 1975.

The "Person of Cultural Merit" Award is the latest in a long list of honors that have heralded the organic chemist's accomplishments, including the Welch Award in chemistry, the Imperial Prize of the Japan Academy, the Arthur C. Cope Award of the American Chemical Society, and the Nakanishi Prize established jointly by the Chemical Societies of America and Japan. He has received honors from nine countries. Nakanishi has published more than 650 papers and authored, co-authored or edited nine books, including an autobiography published by the American Chemical Society.

The award was presented on Nov. 4 in Tokyo, and it comes with an annual dividend of $35,000 for the remainder of the recipient's life.

Published: Nov 29, 1999
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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