Koji Nakanishi

Born: May 11, 1925 | Hong Kong, CN

This interview covers the life of Koji Nakanishi from his early education in Egypt to his current work as Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University and Director of the Suntory Institute for Bioorganic Research in Japan. Nakanishi also comments on his education in wartime Japan, his fellowship years at Harvard University, and his research on the structure of natural products and their mode of action, and the development and use of infrared spectroscopy, NMR, and circular dichroism. He concludes by briefly discussing his avocation, magic, and some general comments on the future of organic chemistry. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0059
No. of pages: 70
Minutes: 217

Interview Sessions

Leon B. Gortler
15 February 1985
Columbia University, New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

This interview covers the life of Koji Nakanishi from his early education in Egypt to his current work as Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University and Director of the Suntory Institute for Bioorganic Research in Japan. He discusses his education in wartime Japan, his fellowship years at Harvard University working with Louis Fieser, a succession of positions at various Japanese universities, and his eventual decision to go to Columbia University. Nakanishi's research on the structure of natural products and, more recently, their mode of action, and the development and use of infrared spectroscopy, NMR, and circular dichroism is discussed in some detail. The interview concludes with a brief discussion of his avocation, magic, and some general comments on the future of organic chemistry.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1947 Nagoya University BSc Chemistry
1954 Nagoya University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

Harvard University

1950 to 1952
Garioa Fellow

Nagoya University

1955 to 1958
Assistant Professor

Tokyo Kyoiku University

1958 to 1963
Professor

Tohoku University

1963 to 1969
Professor

International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology

1968 to 1977
Director of Research

Suntory Institute for Bioorganic Research

1979 to 1986
Director

Columbia University

1969 to 1980
Professor
1980 to 1986
Centennial Professor
1987 to 1988
Chairman, Chemistry Department

Honors

Year(s) Award
1954

Award in Pure Chemistry, Chemical Society of Japan

1968

Asahi Cultural Award

1978

Ernest Guenther Award, American Chemical Society

1979

Chemical Society of Japan Award

1979

E. E. Smissman Medal, University of Kansas

1979

Centenary Medal, British Chemical Society

1980

H. C. Urey Award, Phi Lambda Upsilon, Columbia University

1981

Remsen Award, Maryland Section, American Chemical Society

1985

First Research Award, American Society of Pharmacognosy

1986

Alcon Award in Opthamology

1986

Paul Karrer Gold Medal, University of Zürich

1987

Honorary D. Sc. , Williams College

Table of Contents

Childhood, Family, and Early Education
1

World War II. Father's occupation. Siblings. British Boys School in Alexandria, Egypt. Return to Japan. Keeping up with English. Garioa Fellowship. High school in Osaka during the war. Decision to go into chemistry. Entry into Nagoya University. Work in explosives research.

Nagoya University
5

The Japanese university system. Fujio Egami. Y. Hirata (research mentor). Feelings about the war. Conditions after the war. Natural product tradition in Japan. Three pioneers of Japanese chemistry. Marriage. Influence of wife. Daughter (Keiko) and son (Jun). Research problems—actinomycin, xanthopterin. Garioa Fellowship. Decision to go to Harvard. Preparation for America. The Garioa Fellows.

Harvard University
12

First exposure to infrared spectroscopy. Articles and book on infrared spectroscopy. Translation of book into English. First research problem with Fieser. Paper chromatography. Paul Bartlett's lectures. Introduction to electronic theory of organic chemistry. Fieser's stuffed bat. Students and faculty at Harvard.

Return to Japan
16

Nagoya University. Assistant Professor to Hirata. The Fieser group at Harvard. The use of spectroscopy. Move to Kyoiku University (Tokyo University of Education). Conversion of Kyoiku University to Tsukuba University. First introduction to NMR. Consulting meeting with Carl Djerassi. Natural product research coupled with applications of spectroscopy. Interest in bioactive compounds.

Tohoku University in Sendai
21

Offer to go to Tohoku in 1963. Work on the ginkgolides. Support of research by the Takeda Company. The search for biologically active plant constituents. The ecdysones.

Columbia University
28

The decision to move. The decision to go to Columbia. Director of Research for International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (Nairobi). Consulting for Syntex. Circular dichroism.

Research
33

Structure of fluorescent Y base of t-RNA. Insect antifeedants. The neem tree. Isao Kubo. Chemistry of vision. Brevotoxin. Use of x-ray and other advanced spectroscopic methods in structure determination. Interdisciplinary approaches to structure determination and mode of action. Tunichrome, vanadium sequestering agent. Crustacean molting inhibitor. Meiosis-inducing substance in starfish. Changes in organic chemistry. Dynamic natural products. Cardiotonic hormones.

Suntory Institute (SUNBOR)
45

Origins. How Nakanishi became Director. Postdoc system. Critique of the Japanese university system. Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS). Personnel structure of the Suntory Institute. Difficulty in accepting foreign postdocs. Comparison of American and Japanese postdoc system. Research structure at SUNBOR.

Teaching
54
Magic and Other Diversions
55
Challenges for Organic Chemistry
56

Chemistry of cell differentiation. Phytolexins.

Advice for Aspiring Young Scientists
57
Notes
60
Index
62

About the Interviewer

Leon B. Gortler

Leon Gortler is a professor of chemistry at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He holds AB and MS degrees from the University of Chicago and a PhD from Harvard University where he worked with Paul Bartlett. He has long been interested in the history of chemistry, in particular the development of physical organic chemistry, and has conducted over fifty oral and videotaped interviews with major American chemists.