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Herbert Hauptman (1917-2011)



How many of us are lucky enough to hang out with Nobel Prize winners at a backyard party? For just a couple of years, I—and about 100 other invitees at a well-attended annual soiree—were those lucky people. Herbert Hauptman and his wife Edith were invariably down-to-earth and conversable at these events, as they were at their public appearances on behalf of the Hauptman-Woodward Institute. Buffalo's only Nobel Laureate was always front and center—you'd never be able to accuse him of living in an ivory tower. He cared about his community and had plenty of opinions about it, which he shared. Hauptman lived to be 94. We should all do so well—not just in longevity, but in our willingness to make as big a contribution as we can.—Elizabeth Licata

Here's an interview with Hauptman from the 2007 Buffalo Spree Medical Resource Guide

Buffalo’s Nobel laureate and ninety-year-old innovator: Herbert Hauptman

by Terri Parsell Hilmey

The white tie and tails, the glamorous award presentation by a King, the prominent seating at dinner next to a Queen bedecked in jewels … all these are the trappings of the Nobel Prize, but the Prize itself is attained by “outstanding achievement” in whatever field it is given. Dr. Herbert Hauptman, the first mathematician to receive a Nobel Prize in chemistry, earned his prize in 1985 by solving what had long been represented to chemistry scholars as an innately insoluble problem: determining the structure of a molecular crystal by the diffraction pattern caused when x-rays were passed through it. Though not obvious to the layman, this discovery opened many doors and laid the groundwork for some of the most important scientific and medical research done today.

 

Why is x-ray crystallography so important?

Well, generally, x-ray crystallography enables you, in effect, to magnify anything far more than any optical device or microscope can do—at the molecular level.

 

How is it being used here at the Hauptman-Woodward Institute to impact some of the new medical advances?

At our Institute, William Duax is working on a project on genetic code evolution and the human genome, Debashis Ghosh has a project on breast cancer research, examining the enzyme responsible for estrogen synthesis, and Vivian Cody is doing work on AIDS and cancer-related enzyme targets. These are the few people that are still getting at least partial funding from the National Institute of Health [NIH].

 

Has the NIH funding been cut recently?

We’re all suffering from the shortsightedness of the present administration in Washington. It’s worse than shortsightedness. They’re not only throwing money away, but they’re spending for all the wrong reasons. NIH funding had been going up-up-up, and now funding is flat, which is essentially a cut, because costs continue to increase. We had been funded very well, and had produced sufficient results to deserve that funding, up until a few months ago, when, due to the NIH budget constraints, we were no longer going to receive the kind of support that we were accustomed to.

Now, I wasn’t surprised to lose my personal grant. I’m getting to an age, at age ninety, where it’s very difficult to get any kind of support. The government isn’t, strictly speaking, supposed to take age into account, but for pragmatic purposes, they really have to, because they can use that same money to support the work being done by someone in their thirties, who potentially has another sixty years of solid work ahead of them. But we do, as a society, have a responsibility to support these younger scientists who are suffering, and who are finding difficulty funding this research which benefits all of mankind.

It’s a basic kind of biomedical research; we can’t always say that “this particular research will cure this particular disease.” That’s not the way it works. Our research here enables us to gain knowledge about biomedical processes at a very elemental level, and is the precursor to research on virtually all diseases.

 

Would you say that research like this needs to take place in order for medicine to advance in any number of directions, ten, fifteen, or twenty years down the road?

If our country, the wealthiest country in the world, can’t afford to spend the kind of money that has to be spent to do this basic work, then where will it be done? Poorer countries are struggling just to survive and provide basic healthcare and vaccinations. What we’re beginning to understand, more and more, is that there is no kind of research which is so fundamental, which should not be supported.

 

Despite your age, I understand you just recently won another grant. What are you working on now?

The timing was just right. About a year before, I had stumbled upon the idea of using neutrons instead of x-rays to determine structure, because not all structures can be solved using x-ray diffraction techniques. The goal of my current research is to develop new methods that use neutron radiation. We recently won a grant from the Human Frontier Science Program, which we share with colleagues in France and Japan, to pursue this research. In order to win the grant, the work had to be international (thus the partnerships with scientists in France and Japan), interdisciplinary (involving mathematics, chemistry, biology, and crystallography, as well as several other disciplines in a tangential way), and innovative (meaning it’s never been done before).

 

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So, as his ninetieth birthday passes, Buffalo’s resident Nobel laureate continues to think independently, create new and pioneering research avenues, and fight for the funding that the scientists coming up behind him will need now and far into the future. His Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute is also a prominent part of the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus, which has brought new vitality to the adjacent Allentown and Fruit Belt neighborhoods, fine architecture to our cityscape, and bright young minds to a city which welcomes them with open arms.

 

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