February 14, 1917 is the birthday of mathematician Herbert A. Hauptman, whose advances in the field of crystallography, pursued together with his colleague Jerome Karle, helped earn him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1985. Hauptman and Karle’s simplification of the method by which scientists can ascertain the precise three-dimensional structure of compounds at the atomic level had a major impact on the development of nearly all the pharmaceuticals created over the past three decades.
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Herbert Aaron Hauptman was born in the Bronx, New York to Israel Hauptman, a printer, and the former Leah Rosenfeld, a department store clerk. After attending Townsend Harris, a school for gifted students in Queens, Hauptman earned his degrees in mathematics from City College of New York (where Karle was a classmate, though they didn’t know each other then), Columbia University and the University of Maryland.
During World War II, Hauptman served as a weather forecaster in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. In 1947, he joined the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. while working on his doctorate. It was there that he and Karle, a chemist, began to apply their combined expertise to the challenge of how to use X-ray crystallography to analyze molecular structure.
By passing X-rays through the compound to be analyzed, and allowing the diffracted rays to leave their images on X-ray film, it is possible to determine a model of the structure of the crystal of the substance. What Hauptman and Karle did was apply probability theory to the process, enabling a determination of the precise placement of the atoms within the molecule being studied. The work done by the pair, coupled with the increasingly powerful computers that became available by the 1970s, reduced from two years to two days the amount of time required to map the structure of a simple biological molecule.
Hauptman said in a 2008 interview that once he had heard that “here was a problem that no one could solve … even impossible to solve on principle… there was no letting go.” Yet, it took several decades before other scientists grasped their significance and were able to apply them to the molecular analysis of hormones, antibiotics and other subjects. Nonetheless, by the time Hauptman died three years ago, a colleague told The Associated Press, “I don’t think there’s a single pharmaceutical that’s been developed in the last 30 years that hasn’t been studied using derivations of what Dr. Hauptman and his colleagues won the Nobel Prize for.”
In 1970 Hauptman, reluctant to turn his research to laser-guided missiles, left the Naval Research Lab for the Medical Foundation of Buffalo. The private foundation, which changed its name to the Hauptman-Woodward Institute in 1994, specializes in endocrine research, and he became its president in 1988.
Hauptman was married to the former Edith Citrynell in 1940 and they had two daughters. Although Jewish in background, he declared himself an atheist, going so far as to say at one point that a belief in God “is damaging to the well-being of the human race.”
Hauptman continued to work until he was in his 90s. He died on October 23, 2011 at age 94 after suffering a stroke.