2008 Smissman Memorial Lecturer

Ronald C. Breslow

Ronald C. Breslow, Ph.D. (Web Page)

  • S. L. Mitchill Professor of Chemistry and University Professor
    Department of Chemistry, Columbia University, New York, New York

Public Lecture and Award Presentation

  • How Did Chirality (Handedness) that was Critical for the Origin of Life get Started on Earth?

Scientific Lectures

  • SAHA, An Approved Cancer Medicine with a Novel Mechanism of Action Biomimetic Chemistry


Ronald C. Breslow completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard University, receiving an A.B. in Chemistry (1952), a M.A. in Medical Science (1954), and a Ph.D. in Chemistry (1955), working with Professor R. B. Woodward. Subsequently, after spending a year in Cambridge, England as a postdoctoral fellow with Lord Todd, he joined Columbia University in 1956. He is currently Professor of Chemistry and Biology at Columbia, one of twelve University Professors, and a former Chairman of the Department of Chemistry.

He was elected a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1966; he is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the European Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He is a Foreign Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy, an Honorary Member of the Korean Chemical Society, an Honorary Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry of Great Britain, a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of Britain, a Fellow of the World Innovation Foundation, and an Honorary Member of the Chemical Society of Japan. He is also an Honorary Professor of the University of Science and Technology of China.

He has been the Chairman of the Board of Scientific Advisors of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and a member of the Board of Trustees of Rockefeller University. He is on the Editorial Board of a number of scientific journals, and has held over 200 named lectureships and visiting professorships.

In a remarkable career spanning more than 50 years, he has authored close to 450 research publications and has been the research advisor of more than 125 graduate students and over 150 postdoctoral associates. His seminal contributions in the areas of nonbenzenoid aromatic chemistry, enzyme catalyzed reactions, biomimetic approaches to organic synthesis, and development of novel anti-cancer compounds continues to expand the boundaries of chemical, medicinal, and material sciences research.

He synthesized the cyclopropenyl cation, the simplest aromatic system and the first aromatic compound prepared with other than six electrons in a ring. He established the phenomenon of anti-aromaticity, and discovered the chemical mechanism used by thiamine (vitamin B1) in biochemical reactions. He was among the first researchers to recognize the importance and applications of biomimetic reactions in organic synthesis. Some of his seminal contributions include the development of remote functionalization reactions, and studies involving the synthesis of artificial enzymes and their applications in organic chemistry and biochemistry. In his studies on the influence of aqueous media in organic synthesis and in mechanistic chemistry, he has shown that the hydrophobic effect can be used beneficially to promote and direct chemical reactions, and to furnish information about the geometries of transition states. The results of these studies have been striking, providing information about these reactions not available by other techniques. Another long-standing program in his laboratory is aimed at the development of novel compounds that can induce cells to differentiate. These have important potential in cancer chemotherapy, and one of the compounds resulting from this research—vorinostat (Zolinza®)—is the first histone deacetylase inhibitor approved for use in cancer patients by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration.

His scientific awards include the American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry, the Fresenius Award, the Baekeland Medal, the Centenary Medal, the Harrison Howe Award, the Remsen Prize, the Roussel Prize in Steroids, the James Flack Norris Prize, the Richards Medal, the Arthur C. Cope Award, the Kenner Award, the Nichols Medal, the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemistry, the Allan Day Award, the Paracelsus Medal of the Swiss Chemical Society, and the U.S. National Medal of Science. He was named one of the top 75 contributors to the chemical enterprise in the past 75 years by Chemical & Engineering News, and won the Priestley Medal, the New York City Mayor's Award in Science, the Bader Award in Bioorganic Chemistry and the Esselen Award for Chemistry in the Public Interest. In 2003 he received the Robert Welch Award in Chemistry, in 2004 he received the Willard Gibbs Award, and in 2006 he received the Othmer Gold Medal and the Paul Gassman Medal. In 2007 he received the Organic Syntheses Award. The American Chemical Society gives an annual award in his name, the Ronald Breslow Award in Biomimetic Chemistry.

He has also received the Mark Van Doren Medal of Columbia University and the Columbia University Great Teacher Award. He was President of the American Chemical Society in 1996.

His interests extend well beyond chemistry. He is an accomplished pianist whose repertoire extends from popular songs to improvisational jazz. He is also an occasional scuba diver and skier.

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