World Colleagues to Fete Nakanishi on His 70th Birthday

Photograph: Koji Nakanishi. Photo Credit: Joe Piniero.

Renowned Columbia chemist Koji Nakanishi celebrates his 70th birthday this month, and friends, colleagues and former students from around the world have made certain the occasion will be memorable.

More than 200 leading chemists from more than a dozen countries will gather May 20-21 for a weekend symposium in Havemeyer Hall on the Columbia campus. Most of the visitors are experts in organic or natural products chemistry, a field that Nakanishi, the Centennial Professor of Chemistry, has transformed in a 40-year career in Japan and the United States, 26 of them at Columbia.

The program includes lectures by former Nakanishi colleagues from his days as a postdoctoral student at Harvard and his early teaching career in Japan. Though his 70th birthday was actually May 11, the chemists will mark it with a gala Low Rotunda banquet on May 20. While everyone respects the energetic chemist, there are sure to be hijinks as well.

"Koji Nakanishi has made a major impact both as a scientist and as a human being," said David Lynn, professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and a postdoctoral student at Columbia in 1977-79. "His career has spanned the development of science in Japan since World War II, and he's been a major figure in creating collaborative linkages between Japanese and American scientists.

"At the same time, he brings a nurturing, stimulating approach, intellectual insight and great good humor to the laboratory and to scientific meetings."

In an extraordinarily productive career, Nakanishi has determined the structure of more than 160 natural products that are intimately involved in the lives of plants and animals.

Almost all of these substances occur naturally, but in minute quantities: bioactive compounds produced by land and sea animals, plants, insects and microorganisms for a variety of purposes.

He has charted the structures of many such compounds--insect antifeedants, red tide toxins, insect and crab molting hormones, shark repellents, wasp venoms--and has suggested commercial or therapeutic uses for them in more than 600 research papers.

He demonstrated the mode of action of mitomycin, a widely used anticancer agent, and showed how polyaromatic hydrocarbons in cigarette smoke bind to DNA, causing lung cancer.

His research on retinal, a compound occurring in the human eye that is related to vitamin A, led to a widely accepted chemical explanation of color vision. That discovery, in 1979, solved a mystery that had baffled researchers for decades.

His recent work has been directed toward understanding how biologically active compounds interact with their receptors in the body.

He is also developing methods to determine the chirality, or handedness, of molecules, one of the most important structural factors for a molecule to be biologically active.

There have been nine books, including an autobiography, A Wandering Natural Products Chemist, published in 1991 by the American Chemical Society, and a list of awards that covers asingle-spaced page of his curriculum vita.

But his principal contribution, and one that is often neglected, say colleagues, has been to change how chemists analyzed unknown substances.

In natural products chemistry, researchers often work with a microgram or less of material, which cannot be wasted in attempting reactions with known reagents. Faced with this difficulty, Nakanishi pioneered the extensive use of spectroscopy to determine the structure of unknown molecules. Now, natural products chemists routinely use infrared spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and circular dichroid spectroscopy to analyze natural compounds.

"Anybody who does any sort of research in organic chemistry today has been influenced by Nakanishi," said Roy Okuda, associate professor of chemistry at San Jose State University and a postdoctoral student at Columbia in 1984-85. "A lot of young people don't realize he's the one responsible for popularizing these techniques."

Nakanishi earned the B.Sc. and Ph.D. from Nagoya University, conducted postdoctoral research at Harvard, 1950-52, then returned to Japan to teach at three prominent universities before joining the Columbia faculty in 1969.

He was director of research for the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi from 1969 to 1977 and has been director of the Suntory Institute for Bioorganic Research in Osaka since 1979. He was named Centennial Professor at Columbia in 1980.

Nine former Nakanishi group members around the country began holding conference calls and sending e-mail in February of 1994 to organize the birthday symposium.

"We had an overwhelmingly positive response," said Okuda. Chemists from more than a dozen countries are expected.

The attending scientists are current and former members of the Nakanishi research group, colleagues and friends from other institutions and participants in Columbia's Industrial Associates Program, a collaboration with private industry.

Nakanishi group members--there are some 300 worldwide--say that working in his laboratory was a transforming experience none will forget.

"It's a unique group of people that spans many generations," Okuda said.

Two former Nakanishi group members--Ray Cooper, director of new lead discovery and spectroscopy at Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Inc., South San Francisco, Calif., and John Snyder, associate professor of chemistry at Boston University--have solicited chapters from other group members for a book to honor their former mentor, to be published next year.

"We felt it was a great opportunity to honor the man who challenged us with so many tough research questions about chemistry and inspired so much of our research," Snyder said.

Nakanishi is known for his magic tricks, which can turn a sober scientific meeting into uncontrolled hilarity. Every birthday is accompanied by gifts of figurines and stuffed animals of the bull, because he was born in 1925, in the Year of the Bull. This one will be no exception, said Nina Berova, senior research scientist at Columbia and a Nakanishi group member.

"He has more than 100 figures, and he'll probably get 50 more," Berova said. And the significance of the bull? "I like the bull, because I am very impatient," Nakanishi said. "And the bull is a very patient animal."

Columbia University Record -- May 17, 1995 -- Vol. 20, No. 29