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April 1998

Herbert Hauptman:

The Nobel Laureate Who Won't Stop Working



Some folks have greatness thrust upon them; others attain it in the old-fashioned way - they earn it.  Herbert Hauptman, president of Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, Inc. (formerly the Medical Foundation of Buffalo), was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1985, some thirty years after his pioneering work developing a mathematical method to determine molecular structures of crystallized materials.

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Herbert Hauptman and Her Majesty Queen Silvia of Sweden during the Nobel celebration dinner of December 1985 in Stockholm.

Dr. Hauptman aided now by a team of 45 scientists working in his laboratory, has continued to refine the direct methods technique, resulting in the design of many new drugs to combat deadly diseases.

The Genial and soft-spoken mathematician, the only non-chemist ever to receive the esteemed Nobel in this category, will be 81 in February.  "I'm still doing my work," he says.  "It's sort of an addiction."  The applications of his techniques - from the production drugs to fight heart disease and cancer to the development of effective against resistant bacteria - is for him the unanticipated benefit of pursuing a lifelong love of mathematics.

"The work that most scientists do does not save lives," he muses.   "Not everyone gets the kind of satisfaction I've had, doing what I want to do and it turns out to literally save lives."  It's practically the polar opposite of the career path he might have taken when, after no more than two decades as a physicist-mathematician in the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. - the site of his Nobel-lauded work - Herbert Hauptman was offered the opportunity to participate in weapons development.

Instead he came to Buffalo in 1970 at the behest of an old friend who was then directing the laboratory that now bears his name.  "That turned out to be the best move I could have made," Dr. Hauptman says.  Though he's been president of the institute since 1986 - and that has meant more administrative work - he often done at home, where he lives with his wife of 57 years, Edith, a fellow Bronx native.  The Hauptman's have two grown daughters.

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Dr. Hauptman and colleague, Charles M. Weeks, 1970.

Dr. Hauptman is a graduate of City College New York and Columbia University.  He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Maryland.  His father was a printer and his mother sold ladies' hats.  He has two younger brothers, one living in Queens, the other in Maryland and "now sensibly retired"- one a former electronics engineer; the other a corporate officer for a clothing manufacturer.   Growing up he admits he was "somewhat unusual," spending most of his time in libraries.

"I was interested in math and physics; I always thought I'd grow up to be a math teacher somewhere," he recalls.  This was during the Depression, when getting any kind of job seemed hopeless.  Finally, in 1940 he took a job as a statistician with the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington.  In 1942 World War II intervened and he applied for Naval commission.  As an ensign he was sent to weather forecasting school for nine months.  Then he was sent to the Southwest Pacific for 18 months, "where I never did any weather forecasting."

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Herbert Hauptman age 8 and younger brother Manuel, age 7.

Herbert Hauptman, age 14 (top), and two younger brothers, Manuel, age 13 (middle), and Robert, age 6 (bottom).

He was made a permanent "officer of the day," charged with responding to all manner of crises.  He also served as a fire marshall in the Philippines, despite having had only one day of training in firefighting, where he inhaled too much diesel fumes and had to be hospitalized for 10 days.  Even if his superior officers didn't know quite what to do with him Herbert Hauptman always had his own ideas.  He really wanted to be a research scientist but there was one more detour in store.  Back stateside he landed in Florida, where he taught basic electronics and radar to officers in the Army Airforce.  Finally, he applied to the Naval Research Lab, connecting a career as a researcher that now spans fifty years.

Electron diffraction was his first assignment in the naval lab- it had been known since 1912 that crystals scattered x-rays.  In principle you could determine the structures of crystals from the diffraction pattern."  He and colleague Jerome Karle, a fellow graduate of the 1937 City College class whom he'd never met until they worked on this problem. "My contribution in those early years," Dr. Hauptman recalls, "I was to formulate this as a purely mathematical problem which had a solution.  We developed the mathematical underpinnings.

"We knew this was important work but the idea that this would eventually win a Nobel Prize never occurred to us."  The breakthrough he made permitted chemists to determine molecular structures routinely and rapidly.  Now biologists and pharmacologists could relate structures to biological activity and gain a better understanding of how living things work, leading to an understanding of the causes of disease and the development of drugs to fight them off.  Today the research continues as new treatments are modified and improved.

"It's a war that goes on forever," Dr. Hauptman says.

The Nobel Prize is special in that it honors work that benefits mankind.  And so the work of Dr. Hauptman- who heard he'd been considered for the prize ten years before getting it ("I never thought it would be possible- no mathematician had ever been awarded a Nobel.")- has been anointed.

"It's made a difference in my life," he says.  "I get invited to give talks all over.  I feel an obligation to accept these invitations.  There's a glamour that goes with the Nobel Prize that goes with nothing else for a scientist."

In his unpretentious way, he gave his first post-Nobel speech at a local elementary school where his wife, now retired, taught.  Now he travels all over the world, speaking and receiving honorary degrees, from Poland to Israel and Italy.  The Hauptman-Woodward Institute is world-renowned for biomedical research, particularly in crystal-structures as a key to drug design.

The man who once planned to retire around age 65 goes into his office every day.   He has piles of papers and scientific tomes stacked on shelves in his office, and he longs to spend more time reading.  "There are things I've worked on and never finished," he says.  "I can see now that I never will."

For respite he enjoys an annual vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains, usually with one of his daughters.  He likes to hike in the West and Southwest where he visits old friends.  Sometimes his wife accompanies him on business trips but, he admits, "We haven't had a real vacation alone in some time.  We'll have to do something about that."  Clearly not one to rest on his Nobel laurels he expects to continue doing the mathematical detective work he's done for half a century.   "I've long ago given up on trying to plan too much," he says.   "And as long as I'm healthy I just don't see myself not working."


Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Hauptman


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