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Robert Burns Woodward (April 10, 1917 – July 8, 1979)

American Organic Chemist Dr. Robert Burns Woodward has a legacy of innovation and accomplishment, culminating into the 1965 Nobel Prize in chemistry “for his outstanding achievements in the art of organic synthesis.”


Dr Woodward earned his Bachelor of Science in 1936 and his PhD in 1937 based upon his work toward the synthesis of estrone. He joined as a faculty at Harvard University. Between 1945 and 1979 he received 45 honorary degrees, 26 medals and awards, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1953 at the notably young age of 36. Dr. Woodward has 196 publications to his name, which encompass the structural determination of complex natural products, his elegant total syntheses of medicinal compounds, and his theories linking quantum mechanics and organic chemistry.

He completed the synthesis of cortisone, an anti-arthritic hormone – used as an important military medicine during World War II and continues to be heavily utilized to treat a variety of medical conditions. He accomplished the formal synthesis of quinine in 1944, answering the call of the War Production Board. Once the Allied Force’s cinchona plantations were seized by the Japanese during WWII, the natural source of quinine had been severed and a synthetic anti-malarial alternative was necessary. Based upon Dr. Woodward’s synthesis of quinine, chemists were able to develop other quinoline-based anti-malarial compounds currently being used, such as chloroquine, primaquine, and mefloquine.

In 1947, Dr. Woodward determined the chemical structure of penicillin and two years later that of strychnine. In the early 1950s, he began to synthesize steroids, and in 1954 he synthesized strychnine and lysergic acid, the basis of the hallucinogenic drug LSD. In 1956 he constructed reserpine, the first of the tranquillizing drugs.

Dr. Woodward and coworkers synthesized cholesterol and chlorophyll, which were astounding achievements involving elegant reaction sequences. In the course of the synthesis of vitamin B12 he developed, along with Roald Hoffmann, the fundamentals of orbital symmetry. The so-called Woodward-Hoffman rules that emerged from this research are probably the most important theoretical advance of the 1960s in organic chemistry.

In 1981 Hoffmann shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with Kenichi Fukui of Japan “for their theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions.” Turning his attention again to antibiotics, he and his co-workers produced tetracycline in 1962 and cephalosporin C in 1965. In 1981 the large team of researchers collaborating with Woodward reported the first stereo controlled asymmetric chemical synthesis of Erythromycin A, his final project.

Dr. Woodward died from a heart attack on July 8, 1979 but not before teaching generations of chemists the fine art of organic synthesis. During his tenure, Professor Woodward trained more than two hundred talented PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, many of whom later went on to distinguished careers. His work is undoubtedly a cornerstone of modern organic chemistry and continues to be used for the synthesis of pharmaceuticals.

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