Dr. Herbert Hauptman, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1985 for his work uncovering the structure of molecules, has died. He had worked into his 90s at the research institute in Buffalo that now bears his name.
He was 94 when he died Sunday. He recently had a stroke, a colleague said Monday.
Hauptman, who saw beauty in mathematics, received the Nobel Prize nearly 40 years after setting out to solve a problem other scientists had given up on: how to determine molecular structures using X-ray crystallography. He used mathematical equations to interpret the patterns formed by X-rays scattered from crystals.
"All I had to hear was here was a problem that no one could solve. Not even that, but was even impossible to solve on principle," Hauptman said during a 2008 documentary on his life produced by WNED-TV of Buffalo. "Once I heard that, there was no letting go."
Born in New York City, Hauptman began his research at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington but left for Buffalo during the Vietnam War after feeling pressured to develop anti-missile and other war-related technology, something he was morally opposed to after serving in the Navy during World War II.
"The big lesson you learn from being in a war situation is that life becomes very cheap," he said in the documentary, recalling how he got through his 18 months overseas by reading from one of his favorite books, "Advanced Calculus" by Edwin Bidwell Wilson, and working on problems. Playing with mathematical calculations was a habit he'd gotten into as a young boy, even as his brother and others his age were out playing ball.
In Buffalo, Hauptman continued his research at the Medical Foundation, which eventually became the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute in recognition of Hauptman's contributions, along with the Woodward family, which supported the work.
Hauptman's methodology "allows us to make three-dimensional representations of drugs so that we understand what they look like in space and can understand how they work," said Eaton Lattman, chief executive of Hauptman-Woodward. "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."
The Nobel was shared by research partner Jerome Karle, a physical chemist.
But Hauptman never sought out a national stage after the honor, remaining in Buffalo to nurture the institution and its researchers, who continue to work toward developing new tools for scientists at a time when applied research focused on specific illnesses gets more attention and funding.
"We have to figure out, and I think we know, how to continue the kind of science that he created here," Lattman said. "In the end, if you shut off the pipeline at the beginning, stuff will run out for a while and then it will stop."
Hauptman earned a master's degree in mathematics at Columbia University and a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Maryland.
He was a professor at the University at Buffalo, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and received honorary degrees from numerous universities in the United States, Poland, Israel and Italy. He wrote three books, contributed chapters to at least 40 others and presented papers at more than 280 national and international meetings, according to the institute.
UB President Satish Tripathi said Hauptman was "one of the most eminent and influential faculty members in UB's long history, and widely considered to be the most important scientist ever to have lived in western New York."
"As a brilliant scholar whose achievements in the laboratory have made possible longer and healthier lives, Dr. Hauptman has helped to lead the way toward a host of critical medical breakthroughs," Tripathi said.
A violin player, Hauptman loved classical music and as a hobby, made stained-glass artwork inspired by mathematical shapes. A collection of his work is displayed at Hauptman-Woodward.
Hauptman is survived by his wife, Edith, whom he married within weeks of meeting her in 1940.
"I thought he was handsome, but I didn't know he was as smart as he turned out to be," Edith Hauptman recalled in the documentary.
The couple had two daughters.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Monday.