Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Summer 2009 Vol. 104 No. 4 OAM Home | Oberlin Online


Dr. Ralph F. Hirschmann ’43
Chemistry Pioneer

Dr. Ralph F. Hirschmann made groundbreaking contributions to organic, bioorganic, and medicinal chemistry during more than six decades. He also served as an Oberlin College trustee. Dr. Hirschmann, 87, died June 20.

A native of Fürth, Germany, Dr. Hirschmann immigrated to the United States in 1937 and became a U.S. citizen in 1944. After graduating from Oberlin in 1943, he served in the U.S. Army. He went on to earn a doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1950, after which he joined Merck Research Laboratories, in Rahway, N.J., where he led the medicinal chemistry department. He was eventually named senior vice president for basic research in chemistry, overseeing all chemistry at Merck Research Laboratories worldwide. At Merck, Dr. Hirschmann’s teams discovered and developed many widely used medicines for infectious diseases, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia, including Vasotec, Lisinopril, Primaxin, Mevacor, Proscar, and Ivomec.

Following his productive career at Merck, having reached that company’s mandatory retirement age, he was named Rao Makineni Professor of Bioorganic Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, where he and his collaborators established the field of peptidomimetics. He was also professor of biomedical research at Medical University of South Carolina. During his career, he was associated with more than 100 patents and authored or coauthored about 200 publications.

Among those influenced by Dr. Hirschmann’s work are current members of Oberlin’s science faculty, including professors Rebecca Whelan, Manish Mehta, Jason Belitsky, and Sean Decatur, a protein chemist and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. All of these professors have done work on synthetic peptide or peptidomimetic systems. "Dr. Hirschmann’s work on the total synthesis of ribonuclease in the 1960s was a major breakthrough for studies in biochemistry," says Decatur. "Until then, proteins, complex molecules responsible for all functions in biological systems, could only be isolated from natural, biological sources. The demonstration by Dr. Hirschmann that chemists could synthesize fully functional proteins, combined with technological breakthroughs simplifying and automating the process, advanced our fundamental knowledge of these molecules as well as important applications in medicine," he says. "Dr. Hirschmann is a great example of Oberlin alumni who have done wonderfully creative and important work in the sciences."

In 1969, Dr. Hirschmann received an honorary degree from Oberlin for his many contributions to the sciences and to his alma mater. In 1984, the college created the Ralph F. Hirschmann Lectureship Fund to support an annual lecture or series of lectures by distinguished professors or researchers in the fields of organic, bioorganic, physical organic, or biochemistry.