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Fall 2001
Requiem for a Heavyweight
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Cram was like a sponge at Rollins, sopping up offerings in philosophy, music, theater and choral singing -- he even joined a barbershop quartet. But it was in his first chemistry class that Cram was challenged in a way that would change his life. His professor, convinced he had taken the full measure of the bright young Cram, told him he might do well in industrial work, but he lacked the brainpower for academic research in chemistry. Stung, Cram vowed to prove him wrong.

Following graduate school at the University of Nebraska, Cram served the war effort by working on the development of penicillin for Merck & Co. By the end of the war, he was well into his doctoral work at Harvard. An upstart, West Coast university with high ambitions soon came calling, and on August 1, 1947, Cram arrived at UCLA.

Around the globe, countless students and professionals working in dozens of fields based on molecular biology are learning, using and profiting from the products of Donald Cram's immensely creative mind -- and many likely never know it. Well before 1961, when he was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, Cram realized he had hold of a vein of research with limitless potential for applications in organic synthesis, manufacturing, pharmacology and medicine.

Today, that vein grandly fits under the moniker Cram gave it: molecular recognition, or host-guest chemistry. Cram was among the first scientists to recognize that complex, biologically important molecules such as proteins are able to pull off their amazing feats by fitting together in lock-and-key fashion. They do this by "recognizing" sites on each others' molecular skeletons that permit them to intimately bond, often in exquisite symmetries that seem to blend science and art. Virtually every biological activity, from breathing to getting pain relief from an aspirin, depends on this delicate recognition process.

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