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Donald James Cram

Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus

UC Los Angeles

1919 - 2001


Donald J. Cram, a leading scientist and teacher at UCLA for 54 years, died of cancer at his home in Palm Desert on June 27, 2001; he was 82. Don was a pivotal figure in the development of the UCLA Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. He was one of the leading organic chemists of his generation, and he held himself and others to the highest standards throughout his career.


Don was born in semi-rural Vermont in 1919. His father died when he was four, and he was brought up by his mother, who read to him from an early age. He developed an interest in Chemistry as early as twelfth grade, and he experienced numerous part-time jobs while growing up. After receiving his B. S. degree from Rollins College in Florida in 1941 and an M. S. from the University of Nebraska in 1942, he worked on the chemistry of penicillin as a Research Chemist at Merck & Co. from 1942 to 1945. After the war he became a student of Louis Fieser at Harvard and received his Ph.D. in 1947.


After a short postdoctoral fellowship at MIT with John D. Roberts (UCLA graduate now at Caltech) as an American Chemical Society (ACS) fellow, Don joined the UCLA faculty in 1947 as an instructor. Cram’s quest for excellence as a scholar during these formative years was nurtured at the feet of organic chemistry masters like Tishler, Bartlett, Woodward, Roberts, and, most important, by Saul Winstein, his esteemed colleague, friend, and competitor at UCLA until Saul’s untimely death in 1969.


Cram was promoted to full professor in 1957. During his career at UCLA he taught organic chemistry to tens of thousands of undergraduates. His textbook (with George Hammond) caused a revolution in the teaching of organic chemistry. He mentored about 120 Ph.D. students and 100 postdoctorals and authored more than 400 papers and seven books. For the last 25 years of his career, Cram’s research discoveries created the field of host-guest chemistry, and he won the 1987 Nobel Prize for this work which he shared with Charles Pedersen and Jean-Marie Lehn. Host-guest chemistry had its roots in Pedersen’s crown ethers and it was also inspired by a desire to mimic Nature’s catalysts, the enzymes. Cram turned his flair for design and synthesis more and more to the abstract and produced a vast array of container molecules, inventing a whole new language with words such as spherands, cavitands, and carcerands to describe them.


Before the host-guest era, Don made major contributions to the chemistry of phenonium ions, asymmetric induction (“Cram’s Rule” is a foundation of this area; Cram’s rule of 1952 on asymmetric induction represents one of the early milestones in the establishment of asymmetric synthesis and catalysis, the cornerstones of many of today’s triumphs in the pharmaceutical industry), carbanions, paracyclophanes, and the use of stereochemistry for elucidating reaction mechanisms. His achievements in any one of these areas would have constituted a successful career for most chemists.


Don was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1961, received the ACS Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry in 1965 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1967. In 1974 he received the ACS Cope Award for Distinguished Achievement in Organic Chemistry and was named California Scientist of the Year. He received the Southern California ACS Tolman Award and the Chicago Section ACS Gibbs Medal in 1985 and was named the first holder of the Saul Winstein Chair in Organic Chemistry in the same year. He received the American Chemical Society’s top award in organic chemistry, the Roger Adams Award, in 1985.


“Container Molecules and their Guests” is a 1994 monograph he wrote with his second wife, Jane. She, along with synthetic chemist, Roger Helgeson, X-ray crystallographers, Ken Trueblood, Emily Maverick, and Carolyn Knobler, along with his assistant and artist, June Hendrix, formed a team that collaborated to turn Cram’s inspirations into realities. He was named University Professor in 1988 and received the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences in 1992. He received the National Medal of Science from President Clinton in 1993. “He truly brought art to science by making his science an art,” concludes the citation on the medal. Don held honorary degrees from Uppsala University, Sweden (1977), the University of Southern California (1983), Rollins College (1988), the University of Nebraska (1989), the University of Western Ontario, Canada (1989), and from the University of Sheffield, U.K. (1991).


Don was an avid reader of both classical and current literature. He was a surfer (he belonged to the San Onofre Surfing Club “Old Guys”), a tennis player, and a skier, and his competitive spirit was on display in each of these activities. He also liked to sing folk songs and accompany himself on the guitar, which he often did for large classes of undergraduate organic chemistry students.


When he died, Cram endowed a Chair, the D.J. and J.M. Cram Chair of Organic Chemistry, which is used to attract and support an outstanding organic chemist to the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA.


K. N. Houk