$100,000 Award: Chemists Stork, Danishefsky Win Wolf Prize

Photograph: Samuel Danishefsky.
Photograph: Gilbert Stork.

Samuel Danishefsky and Gilbert Stork, Columbia scientists who have spent their careers replicating nature's chemistry for human use, have won the 1995-96 Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry, it was announced Monday in Israel.

Danishefsky was a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral researcher with Stork at Columbia from 1961 to 1963, and since 1993 has been professor of chemistry at Columbia and has held the Eugene W. Kettering Chair at Memorial Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York. Stork is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Chemistry Emeritus and has been involved in research at Columbia for more than 40 years.

The Israel-based Wolf Foundation said in its announcement that both Columbia scientists will be honored for "designing and developing novel chemical reactions which have opened new avenues to the synthesis of complex molecules, particularly polysaccarides and many other biologically and medicinally important compounds." The two, who are friends and colleagues, will share a prize of $100,000.

"It is a great and, I hope, deserved honor to share the Wolf Prize with my mentor, Gilbert Stork," Danishefsky said from Jerusalem.

"This recognition from the Wolf Foundation is certainly welcome, but, with all respect, it is to my students and research associates that it truly belongs," said Stork in an interview at Columbia.

Both researchers have won renown for their work in synthesizing precise three-dimensional structures of many complex organic compounds, a field Stork pioneered in the early 1950s and one that has become central to pharmaceutical research. The mentor-disciple team has had an immense influence on several generations of chemists in organic synthesis, the Foundation said.

"They are among the world leaders in synthesis of natural products and the development of important methodologies to accomplish this," said Richard A. Lerner, president of Scripps Research Institute, LaJolla, Calif., who shared the 1994-95 Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry.

Polysaccarides--among the more complex carbohydrates--play a crucial role in many biologically important phenomena, including determination of blood type, immune response and tumor development. In 1993, Danishefsky announced a highly efficient synthesis of certain polysaccarides using tools he and Stork had developed. With this work, organic chemists will soon assemble complex carbohydrates with unprecedented selectivity and efficiency, the foundation said.

The President of the State of Israel, Ezer Weizman, will present the 1995-96 Wolf Prizes Mar. 24 at the Knesset, Israel's parliament building, in Jerusalem. The Wolf Foundation, endowed by diplomat and philanthropist Ricardo Wolf and his wife, Francisca, since 1978 has awarded annual prizes in agriculture, chemistry, mathematics, medicine and physics, and has rotated an annual arts prize among the disciplines of music, painting, sculpture and architecture. The prizes are awarded "to promote science and art for the benefit of mankind."

Danishefsky has been honored on many occasions for his syntheses of compounds previously found only in nature, including many terpenes, steroids and alkaloids, many of which have manifested antibiotic and anticancer properties. He has developed a number of original concepts in organic synthesis and is best known for his syntheses of polysaccarides, of the pregnancy hormone estrone and of a variety of antitumor agents.

Born in Bayonne, N.J., he received the B.S. from Yeshiva and the Ph.D. from Harvard, both in chemistry. Danishefsky began his teaching career at the University of Pittsburgh in 1964, attained the rank of professor in 1971 and left to teach at Yale in 1979. He was named chairman of Yale's chemistry department in 1981, Eugene Higgins Professor of Chemistry in 1983 and Sterling Professor in 1989. He came to Columbia in 1993.

Since 1991, he has also headed the Laboratory for Bioorganic Chemistry at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute, where he directs a team of postdoctoral fellows working on the synthesis of various anticancer compounds and anti-infective agents.

Stork was born in Brussels and received his secondary education in France. He received the B.S. from the University of Florida and the Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin. He joined the faculty at Harvard in 1946 as an instructor in chemistry and was named assistant professor in 1948. Stork came to Columbia in 1953 and was named Eugene Higgins Professor in 1967. He served as chairman of the chemistry department from 1973 to 1976. In 1992, he became Eugene Higgins Professor Emeritus.

In the early 1950s, Stork achieved the first synthesis of a complex natural product prepared in correct stereorational orientation. By 1954, chemists had already recognized him by giving his name to an important reaction he discovered, the Stork enamine reaction.

Of equal importance to his achievements in synthesizing specific compounds has been his development of new reactions to simplify the synthesis of complicated substances. Recent research along these lines in Stork's laboratory has established that free radicals--especially reactive molecules with one or more unpaired electrons--can be used in powerful new methods to control stereochemistry in organic synthesis.

In 1983, Stork was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Reagan for "his contributions as one of the world's most innovative and productive synthetic organic chemists." He has taught some 400 doctoral and post-doctoral students; in 1992, former members of his research group organized a Columbia symposium in his honor attended by hundreds of former students now teaching or working in industry.

Announcement of the Wolf Prize in chemistry had been scheduled for Nov. 6, but was postponed after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Nov. 4, said Yaron Gruder, director general of the Foundation.

Columbia University Record -- November 17, 1995 -- Vol. 21, No. 10