Friday, September 21, 2012

R.I.P. Jerome Horwitz, Medicinal Chemist

Multiple news outlets (NYT, SciAm, Karmanos) now report the passing of Jerome Horwitz, 93, a career medicinal chemist behind AIDS drugs such as AZT (1964), stavudine (1966), and dideoxycytidine (1967). Most obituaries focus on two facets from his life:
  1. His invention of AZT, a drug so synonymous with AIDS treatment that it's been mentioned in raps, novels, and Broadway shows.
  2. His perceived failure to patent his antiviral molecules, thus "costing" him and Wayne State University millions in revenue realized instead by Burroughs Wellcome (later GSK). 
First report of AZT, J. Org. Chem. 1964, p. 2076*
I want to take a slightly different tack on Horwitz's career. For my money, he met all the criteria for a successful career in organic chemistry. He published >100 articles and book chapters; not a one-trick nucleoside pony, Horwitz's work covered sterols, acridines, tetrazoyl ylides, epoxide rearrangements, and analogue development of anticancer drug XK469. He had a fifty-year career as a professor at two universities. His work led to (at least) three approved drugs.

He even has a statue installed at Detroit Medical Center.

Even more interesting, he accomplished nearly everything in his career while staying in one place: Michigan. He jumped outside (briefly) to Illinois for a postdoc at Northwestern, but all other schooling and professional work came from in and around Detroit. It's amazing to me, given how much I and others have moved around for a career in science, that his tenure in one metro area lasted for a lifetime.

*Side note: When I look up old papers, I enjoy seeing who else I recognize among the authors in the same issue. 1964 must have been quite heady - in the same issue with AZT, we have papers by Nakanishi, H.C. Brown, Bill Dauben, Alfred Blomquist, and John Baldwin.

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