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Spring 2000

Nobel Men
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DONALD CRAM

For Donald Cram, earning the Nobel Prize was an "evolutionary" process, parallel to the development of UCLA itself into a world-class institution staffed with winners of the world's most conspicuous honors. Cram likes to point out that he and UCLA "grew up together," both having been born in the same year, 1919.

He was on the faculty for 25 years before he even thought of himself as a potential Nobel Prize winner, but the possibility occurred to him when an older researcher, whose work he had been building on, became a Nobel laureate.

By that time, Cram -and UCLA -had matured to the point where they had mastered the requirements of basic scientific research, including the writing of the grant -and patent -applications so crucial to sustaining such work financially. By the time the Nobel was granted-for chemistry in 1987-Cram had created an entirely new category of science. "Host-Guest Organic Chemistry" was named by Cram for his discovery of "molecular recognition," which explains, he says, "practically all biological phenomena." Compounds are formed because one object of a given shape "recognizes" and fits with another to form a common surface, "like a right hand shaking a right hand."

Cram's discovery meant that organic compounds actually could be designed for specific purposes. "The ability of an aspirin to seek out a source of pain and block it is an example." Thirteen or 14 million new compounds now have been designed for various uses, and Cram says the potential number is infinite. Cram was 68 years old when he received his Nobel Prize, and "it rescued me from retirement." As a laureate, he was granted dispensation from the mandatory retirement age of 70 and continued his research for another 10 years. "I did my best work after I got the Nobel Prize," he says, and "it was an awful lot of fun. I felt a joy just to get up in the morning; I couldn't wait to get to work. That's pretty good when you're over 70. My greatest satisfaction was demonstrating that the Nobel Prize wasn't a fluke."

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