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Dr. Norman S. Simmons ’32

Dr. Norman Simmons (May 28, 1915 – January 27, 2004), a UCLA professor emeritus of biophysics, nuclear medicine and oral medicine, was nominated in 1972 for a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for isolating a structurally pure form of desoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This was the DNA which Rosalind Franklin used in her x-ray diffraction studies that rewarded Wilkens, Watson and Crick with the Nobel Prize for their three-dimensional construction of the DNA molecule. Professor Wilkens stated at that time “I wish to thank Norman Simmons for having refined techniques of isolating DNA, and thereby helping a great many workers including ourselves”.

He was a world-renowned leader of biomedical research from the time he was appointed to the Department of Nuclear Medicine and Biophysics at UCLA in 1950. Dr. Simmons came from the University of Rochester with Dr. Stafford Warren when he was appointed as the first dean of the then-developing UCLA School of Medicine.

Dr. Simmons was born in New York City, May 28, 1915. He graduated with a B.S. from City College of New York in 1935, a D.M.D., magna cum laude in 1939 from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. from the Department of Experimental Pathology at Rochester University in 1950, writing a dissertation entitled “Investigation of Submaxillary Mucoid and the Defense Mechanisms of the Mouth.” This work was considered truly innovative and novel. It was followed by his DNA purification studies that set a world standard for DNA investigations. Later, he turned to study the RNA and the virus structure of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, which led to important discoveries of virus structure.

At UCLA, Dr. Simmons was jointly appointed as a professor of biophysics and nuclear medicine in the UCLA Medical School, and oral medicine in the UCLA Dental School. He played a significant role in the early development of the UCLA Dental School. He was in fact appointed to the UCLA Dental faculty in 1964, when the dental school was first initiated, and was instrumental in helping attract Dr. Reidar Sognnaes from Harvard as the founding Dean. While at the UCLA School of Dentistry, his study of why organic substructure disappears when the enamel of teeth mineralizes solved a long-standing scientific mystery.

His life-long work in structural analysis was called “profound, widespread and continuing in providing a stimulus and methodology for the direct investigation and understanding of structure-function relationships in macro-molecules of great bio-medical interest.”

He was a culture-eclectic throughout his life as a sculptor, painter, actor and musician. Many of his students and colleagues well remember the evenings in the lounge of the Westwood Marquis Hotel when Norm Simmons would play the piano, not for money, but for everyone’s enjoyment, especially his own. He became a professor emeritus on December 29, 1978 after an exceptional career in science and academics.