If you take L-dopa for Parkinson’s disease, use a beta blocker for high blood pressure or angina, or even just pop a couple of ibuprofen once in a while when your knees or hips are sore, you owe William S. Knowles a debt of gratitude.
As an organic chemist for St. Louis-based Monsanto Company, Knowles, who passed away last week at age 95, led a research effort from 1968 to 1972 to develop the process that would ultimately allow Monsanto to begin the large-scale production of L-dopa. Another chemist, K. Barry Sharpless of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, later figured out how to apply Knowles’ process to the making of scores of other drugs as well. In 2001, Knowles and Sharpless, along with Ryoji Noyori of Nagoya University in Japan, were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their achievement.
As Sharpless readily acknowledged in a 2001 interview, Knowles was the true visionary, the one who made possible the medications that today help millions of people. “Bill Knowles showed us we could do it,” he explained.
Knowles himself was as self-effacing as he was brilliant. He expressed shock when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences contacted him that year to inform him of his award. “I ever even thought such a thing was in the offing,” he insisted.
Knowles’ humility may have stemmed from his academic struggles as a young man. He got his undergraduate degree at Harvard in 1930s, where he was a B student and deemed so unexceptional that he was encouraged to go elsewhere for graduate study. At Columbia, where Knowles earned his doctorate, he once caused an accidental explosion, destroying a project upon which he had worked for months. In the autobiographical sketch he submitted to the Nobel committee, he joked that he had paralleled the experience of Alfred Nobel, who at once point had also blown up his lab while developing the process for making nitroglycerin.