Columbia College Mourns the Loss of University Professor Ronald Breslow

University Professor Ronald Breslow at the 2016 Hamilton Award Dinner. Photo: David Dini SIPA’14

University Professor Ronald C. D. Breslow, a trailblazing chemist who led the creation of the field of biomimetic chemistry and developed the anti-cancer compound Zolinza, passed away on October 25. He was 86. Breslow was a beloved Columbia College instructor for more than 60 years, and was instrumental to the College’s move to coeducation.

Born on March 14, 1931, Breslow grew up in Rahway, N.J.and received an A.B. in chemistry, an A.M. in biochemistry and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, all from Harvard University. He did his doctoral research with renowned chemist R.B. Woodward and spent a postdoctoral year in Cambridge, England, as an NRC Fellow with Nobel Prize winning-chemist Lord Todd, before coming to Columbia as a faculty member in chemistry in 1956. He later became the Samuel Latham Mitchill Professor of Chemistry and served as chair of the Department of Chemistry (1976–1979). In 1992 Breslow was named University Professor, the University’s highest academic honor, granted to only the most distinguished members of the faculty in recognition of exceptional scholarly merit and contributions to Columbia.

Dedicated to the College and to his teaching throughout his time at Columbia, Breslow was a 2016 recipient of the College’s Alexander Hamilton Medal, the highest honor awarded to a member of the College community for distinguished service to the College and professional accomplishment. He also received the Mark Van Doren Award for Teaching, presented by a student committee in recognition of a faculty member’s humanity, devotion to truth and inspiring leadership, in 1969; the Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates in 1980; and the Michael Pupin Medal for Service to the Nation in Science, Technology or Engineering from the Columbia Engineering Alumni Association in 2016.

“Ronald Breslow exemplified the ideal of the teacher scholar — an imaginative research scientist of the first order, an inspiring lecturer in the classroom, a dedicated mentor of undergraduate and graduate students, and a tireless University citizen,” said Columbia College Dean James J. Valentini.

In 1980, Columbia College Dean Arnold Collery appointed Breslow as chair of a committee to examine instances where formerly all-male colleges near a women’s college had gone coed. The Breslow Report described the evidence that the College could become coeducational without significant damage to Barnard, leading to the College’s subsequent coeducation in 1983.

“My feeling is that Columbia is enormously better by having women in Columbia College,” Breslow said in a video for the 2016 Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner.

He trained many Columbia undergraduate and graduate students who went on to make significant accomplishments in chemistry, including Nobel Prize winners Robert Lefkowitz CC’62, PS’66 and Robert Grubbs GSAS’68, as well as Columbia chemistry professor Virginia Cornish CC’91, who was the first female graduate of the College to become a tenured Columbia professor.

University Professor Ronald Breslow with students. Photo: Columbia College Today (Winter 1985-1986)

“I taught a guy to do what he did and he went off and won himself a Nobel Prize,” Breslow said in connection to his dedication to teaching. “You can see the effect you have on these kids.”

Breslow’s students have echoed his impact. “His inspirational teaching turned my academic career around, enabling me to become a physician educator,” said Dr. Daniel L. Lorber CC’68. “I will forever be grateful to him.”

“Working with Professor Breslow, who became my mentor, I came to understand something of the beauty and power of chemistry,” said Mary Rozenman CC’03. “With his tremendous guidance and encouragement, I found in myself the ability to think creatively about science. I changed my major from neuroscience to biochemistry, and I started to contemplate the option of an M.D./Ph.D. joint program.”

Breslow taught many courses in chemistry, including an organic chemistry class specifically for first-year students who had done significant preparatory work. In 2006 he and his wife, Esther, a biochemistry professor now retired from Weill Cornell Medical College, established the Esther Breslow Professorship in Organic or Biological Chemistry.

“Although Ronald Breslow and I worked in totally different areas of chemistry, he was an awe-inspiring guide for how to carry out research, and I have always tried my best to emulate his ability to be simultaneously deep and broad. He was a total force of nature and a larger than life figure within our department and at Columbia,” said David Reichman, the Centennial Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Department of Chemistry. “Despite all of his accomplishments, he was genuinely warm and giving. My children will never forget the parties he hosted at his house on the nights before Thanksgiving where they were given a close-up view of the Macy’s parade balloons being filled with air.”

University Professor Ronald Breslow receives the American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry (1966).

In 2001 the American Chemical Society (ACS), which Breslow had served as president, established an award in his name, recognizing outstanding contributions to biomimetic chemistry — a field of which Breslow is considered the father. He coined the phrase in the mid-1950s to describe a “new chemistry based on the principles used by nature.”

Breslow put his conception of biomimetics to work most notably with suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid — SAHA — or Zolinza as it’s marketed by Merck, which owns and manufactures the drug for the treatment of cancer. SAHA was approved by the FDA in 2006 as the first-of-its-kind prescription drug. He also discovered the chemical mechanism used by Vitamin B1 in biology, the fundamental system for special stability in molecules with magic numbers of pi electrons, the phenomenon of special instability in molecules with other special numbers of electrons, for which he coined the word “antiaromaticity.” The website for his labs can be viewed here.

“What we do is look at how enzymes work and say, ‘OK, that’s how nature does it — how can we do the same thing?’” Breslow said in a 2012 feature in Columbia College Today. “We’re learning from what nature already does rather than start from scratch with nothing.”

University Professor Ronald Breslow (right) with former President George H. W. Bush, receiving the 1991 U.S. National Medal of Science in the Rose Garden.

Throughout his career, Breslow received more than 75 national and international awards for his research, teaching and professional roles, including the Arthur C. Cope Award; the Priestley Medal, the highest honor conferred by the ACS; and, in 1991, the U.S. National Medal of Science“ for his incisive work on enzyme mimics that has built bridges between chemistry and biochemistry, and for his seminal work on novel conjugated molecules and a new class of anticancer agents.”

Breslow was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, where he served as chairman of the chemistry division (1974–1977); of the American Philosophical Society, where he served as a member of the council (1987–1992); of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and of the European Academy of Sciences, among others. In 1997 he was named one of the top 75 contributors to the chemical enterprise in the past 75 years by Chemical & Engineering News.

Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger described Breslow as “a great Columbian, someone who has given so much to Columbia and the world. In more than 60 years on Columbia’s chemistry faculty, he became a legend as a brilliant researcher and teacher, an inspiring and encouraging mentor, and a true University citizen.”

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