The Man Behind the Lab Coat

Jeremy R. Knowles

Membership in a space allocation committee is not a credit most high-level scientists seek for their resumes.

But it's precisely the kind of thing that Houghton Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Jeremy R. Knowles thrives on, his colleagues say. Knowles led the way for a total reevaluation of the department's lab, classroom and library organization.

"He has a very firm grasp of everything that's going on in the department, down to the smallest details," says Elias J. Corey, Emery professor of organic chemistry.

Co-workers describe Knowles, who chaired the Chemistry Department from 1980 to 1983, as a highly competent administrator. And they say that his attention to detail is just one of the characteristics that first brought the 55-year-old bio-organic chemist to the attention of University administrators selecting a new dean for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in the early 1980s.

Knowles, a specialist in the area of enzyme mechanisms, was also one of the eight final candidates for the Harvard presidency earlier this year.


Knowles' colleagues say that although he is no longer department chair, his opinion on academic and administrative matters is still highly respected. He is often sought out for advice by professors and administrators alike, they say.

"He's probably the best chairman I can remember," says Corey, a Nobel laureate who has been at Harvard for 32 years.

Corey describes Knowles as a "superb" recruiter of faculty who was very active and effective in fundraising for the department.

Many of Knowles' co-workers use the word "charming" to describe him. They say he is well-liked among his fellow FAS professors.

In 1987, Knowles was reportedly offered the FAS deanship but turned it down. His colleagues say they were not surprised by his decision at the time.

"He's probably the world's number one bio-organic chemist," Corey says. "And there were all sorts of new research opportunities just then because of advances in molecular biology and synthetic chemistry."

"It was almost predictable [that he would turn it down at that time]," he adds.

Extensive Interests

Knowles' colleagues say that his interests are extensive and that he possesses an appreciation for the humanities that is rare for a scientist of his caliber.

"He represents a very remarkable combination of talents," says Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry James G. Anderson. "Not only is he a superb scientist, he also has a profound intuition concerning literature and the humanities."