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Election Year: 1961
Scientific Discipline: Chemistry
Membership Type: Member
Donald J. Cram introduced several new areas of research in the field of organic chemistry. He created the field of host-guest chemistry (also known as the “lock-and-key” theory of enzyme activity), which designed and synthesized host compounds that imitated biological enzymes and catalyzed chemical reactions. Over his career, Cram prepared more than 1000 of the host molecules. Later, he extended host-guest chemistry to develop a new area of research called carceplex chemistry, in which one molecule (carcerand) captured another molecule inside of it, initiating a phase transition. This allowed for him to study molecules that would rapidly decompose under normal conditions. Cram used symmetry properties of systems to ascertain the structures and stereochemical capabilities of common organic reaction intermediates, specifically carbonium ions and carbanions. In 1949, he discovered the phenonium ion, which was one of the first bridged ions to be investigated on a wide, global scale. He also contributed to the understanding of cyclophane chemistry, open-chain conformational analysis, and the stereochemistry of organic substitution reactions.
Cram earned all of his degrees in organic chemistry; his B.S. from Rollins College in 1941, his M.S. from the University of Nebraska in 1942, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1947. Before receiving his doctorate, he worked as a research chemist for Merck and Company from 1942 to 1945. He accepted a position as an instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1947. He continued working at the university, becoming an assistant professor in 1948, an associate professor in 1951, and a full professor in 1956. He became the first holder of UCLA’s Saul Winstein Endowed Chair in Organic Chemistry and was named university professor in 1988. Cram received a multitude of awards for his contributions, the most notable of which were two Herbert Newby McCoy Awards for Contributions to Chemistry in 1965 and 1975, the Arthur C. Cope Award for Distinguished Achievement in Organic Chemistry from the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 1974, the Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry from the ACS in 1985, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1987, and the NAS Award in Chemical Sciences in 1992.