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Koji Nakanishi

Koji Nakanishi

CHF Collections

  • Born: May 11, 1925, Hong Kong, China

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0059
Interview Date: February 15, 1985
Location: Columbia University, New York, New York
Interviewer: Leon B. Gortler
No. of pages: 70
Minutes: 210

  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.


1947 B.Sc., Chemistry, Nagoya University
1954 Ph.D., Chemistry (mentor: Y. Hirata), Nagoya University

  Professional Experience

Harvard University

1950 - 1952 Garioa Fellow (with L. F. Fieser)

Nagoya University

1955 - 1958 Assistant Professor

Tokyo Kyoiku University

1958 - 1963 Professor

Tohoku University

1963 - 1969 Professor

International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Nairobi, Kenya)

1968 - 1977 Director of Research

Suntory Institute for Bioorganic Research, Osaka, Japan

1979 Director

Columbia University

1969 - 1980 Professor

Columbia University

1980 Centennial Professor

Columbia University

1987 Chairman, Chemistry Department


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

Title and Description Page

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 A.B. and M.S. degrees from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. 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.

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