Ralph Hirschmann Dies At 87 | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: June 23, 2009

Ralph Hirschmann Dies At 87

Medicinal chemistry pioneer forged paths to new treatments
Department: ACS News
Keywords: Hirschmann, Merck
Credit: Maureen Helwig
Credit: Maureen Helwig

Ralph F. Hirschmann, who made seminal contributions to organic, bioorganic, and medicinal chemistry over six decades, died on June 20 from complications of end-stage renal disease. He was 87.

"Ralph Hirschmann was one of the most distinguished and accomplished scientists of our era who also was a superb leader and gifted mentor," notes medicinal chemist Paul S. Anderson, a former ACS president, Priestley Medalist, and Hirschmann's close friend. "His creative contributions to chemistry and chemical biology inspired a whole generation of scientists to pursue the discovery of new medicines."

A native of Fürth, Germany, Hirschmann immigrated to the U.S. in 1937 and became a U.S. citizen in 1944. He received his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College in 1943 and then served in the Army. He went on to earn a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1950, after which he joined Merck Research Laboratories, in Rahway, N.J.

With R. G. Denkewalter, Hirschmann led the Merck team that achieved the first in-solution synthesis of an enzyme, ribonuclease S´, in 1969.

In the early 1970s, Hirschmann led Merck's department of new lead discovery and, subsequently, its department of medicinal chemistry. In 1978, he was named senior vice president for basic research in chemistry, overseeing all chemistry at Merck Research Laboratories worldwide. During his tenure, Hirschmann's teams discovered and developed many widely used medicines for infectious diseases, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia. They include Vasotec, Lisinopril, Primaxin, Mevacor, Proscar, and Ivomec.

In 1987, after his mandatory retirement from Merck at age 65, Hirschmann joined the University of Pennsylvania, where he was Rao Makineni Professor of Bioorganic Chemistry. He held a concurrent appointment at the Medical University of South Carolina between 1987 and 1999.

While at the University of Pennsylvania, Hirschmann and his collaborators, Amos B. Smith III and K. C. Nicolaou, established the field of peptidomimetics. Failing health forced Hirschmann to retire from the university in 2006. During his career, he was associated with more than 100 patents and authored or coauthored about 200 publications.

In 2000, Hirschmann received the National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton. In 2007, he was inducted into the ACS Medicinal Chemistry Hall of Fame. He also received the ACS Alfred Burger Award in Medicinal Chemistry (1994) and the ACS Arthur C. Cope Award (1999). In addition, he received the William H. Nichols Medal Award of the ACS New York Section (1988), the Bristol-Myers Squibb Smissman Award of the ACS Division of Medicinal Chemistry (1999), the National Academy of Sciences Award for the Industrial Application of Science (1999), the Willard Gibbs Medal of the ACS Chicago Section (2002), and the American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal Award (2003). In 1988, Merck Research Laboratories established the ACS Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry.

Hirschmann was a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences and was a senior fellow of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. He was an emeritus member of ACS, joining in 1947.

He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Lucy; his son, Ralph; his daughter, Carla Hummel; and six grandchildren.

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