Herbert A. Hauptman, Ph.D., Buffalo’s only Nobel Prize winner, died October 23, 2011 at the age of 94. He earned the world’s most prestigious science award — the Nobel Prize for Chemistry — in 1985 for pioneering work on crystal structures.
A brilliant mathematician and scientist, the president of the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute spent most of his life searching for answers to the mysteries of the structure of crystals and molecules. Although he never invented a drug or medicine, his research made it easier for other scientists to develop thousands of drugs and medical procedures to treat a wide array of illnesses. “Dr. Hauptman’s legacy is the scientific knowledge he created and the three generations of scientists he inspired and mentored,” said Dr. Richard A. Aubrecht, chairman of the institute’s board. “We will miss his intellectual leadership.”
His work was world-renowned and bettered the lives of millions, but to those who knew Dr. Hauptman, he was a friendly, down-to-earth man who never let his accomplishments go to his head. “If you worked at the institute, you got to know Herb. He was friendly to everyone from the janitors to the top researchers,” said George T. DeTitta, a longtime friend and former executive director of the institute.
Dr. Hauptman never rested on his laurels and never stopped searching for ways to save lives, according to DeTitta and other associates. “A lot of people who reach that level, winning the Nobel Prize, spend a lot of time wallowing in adulation,” DeTitta said. “Herb never stopped working. He never stopped asking questions.”
A native of the Bronx, Herbert Aaron Hauptman was born Feb. 14, 1917, and grew up in what he called a “lower middle class” neighborhood. His father was a printer; his mother worked as a sales clerk in a store. Dr. Hauptman’s love of science developed early — he began reading newspaper articles about it at age 5 and loved going to the library every Saturday.
Unable to afford a more prestigious school, Dr. Hauptman earned an undergraduate degree from City College of New York, graduating in a class that eventually produced three Nobel winners.
Drafted into the Navy in 1943, he served as an officer in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he worked as a researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., for many years. He earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Maryland in 1954.
Dr. Hauptman made Buffalo his adopted hometown in 1970, moving here to take a position with the Medical Foundation in downtown Buffalo. It was later renamed the Hauptman-Woodward Institute after Dr. Hauptman was awarded the Nobel Prize.
For work that was done before he came to Buffalo, Dr. Hauptman and his longtime research partner, Jerome Karle, Ph.D., won the Nobel Prize for their pioneering work on crystal structures. The two men developed a mathematical process for analyzing the structure of crystals. That process — known as “direct methods” — was used to study tens of thousands of small-molecule crystal structures. Their procedure generated a three-dimensional picture of the positions of atoms within a crystal. That work helped other researchers to understand how drugs function in the human body and made it easier to develop new drugs. When the two men received the Nobel Prize, they were honored for “outstanding achievements in the development of direct methods for the determination of crystal structures.”
Professor Ingvar Lindqvist of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences presented the award to Dr. Hauptman and Karle, a physicist. “[You] have increased the possibility for the chemists to use their imagination and their ingenuity,” Lindqvist told the two men in his presentation speech in Stockholm. “Your basic development of the direct methods for X-ray crystallographic structure determination has given the chemists an efficient tool for faster and more detailed studies of the structures of molecules and therefore also for the study of chemical reactions.”
And speaking of the wide influence that the work of the two men had, Lindqvist also said: “It is not possible to name fields in chemistry where the method [developed by Hauptman and Karle] is not used.”
When the announcement of his award was made, Dr. Hauptman was getting his daily exercise, swimming laps at a local pool.
He is one of 157 individuals who have received the Nobel Prize for chemistry since the award was established in 1901.
In addition to his most famous prize, Dr. Hauptman received many other awards and accolades. He received honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world, including an honorary doctorate from the University at Buffalo in 2009. In 2008, he published an autobiography, “On the Beauty of Science — A Nobel Laureate Reflects on the Universe, God and the Nature of Discovery.” The book included some provocative views on science and religion. Dr. Hauptman wrote that science had done far more for humanity than religions. He pointed to the inventions of computers, air travel and medicine, while noting that many wars and terrorist acts had been the result of deep-rooted religious beliefs.
In part because of his own war experiences, Dr. Hauptman was dedicated to the pursuit of world peace. He also loved talking with young people who shared his fascination with math and science, and he spoke to countless school groups after winning the Nobel Prize.
“There were a few things he was truly passionate about, especially his family, mathematics and his love of classical music,” DeTitta recalled.
Surviving are his wife of 71 years, Edith Citrynell Hauptman; two daughters, Carol Fullerton and Barbara; and a brother, Robert.