Herchel Smith : biography
Herchel Smith (1925–2001) was an Anglo-American organic chemist. His discoveries include the key inventions underlying oral and injectable contraceptives. In later life, he was a major benefactor to university science. In England, Cambridge University, Emmanuel College, Cambridge and Queen Mary, University of London have been the major beneficiaries. In the US, it has been Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Williams College. During his lifetime and after his death, Herchel donated over $200 million to Cambridge and $100 million to Harvard, including endowments to expand student exchange between the two universities through fellowships.
His early education in Plymouth and Exeter (in the West of England) led him in 1942 to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he studied the Natural Sciences Tripos. Smith had research interests in organic chemistry that were stimulated by Professor Lord Todd.
His independent research started in Oxford University (1952–1956) but reached its full fruition whilst he was a lecturer in organic chemistry at the University of Manchester.
In 1961, a three month visit to the research laboratories of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals in Pennsylvania, evolved into a permanent position where he continued to research steroid chemistry.
Herchel Smith’s work on new methods for the total synthesis of steroids led to the development of commercially feasible methods for the industrial production of estrone, equilin (an important constituent of treatments for post-menopausal syndrome), 19-nor-testosterone, and Norgestrel (a novel progestogen). Norgestrel was found to be a potent contraceptive and formed the basis for a range of contraceptive drugs both oral and injectable - mainly marketed by Wyeth and Schering AG of Germany, who still today are leaders in contraceptives.
He retired in 1973 and started a new career as a philanthropist in which he returned to the academic community the major part of the substantial fortune that had accrued from his patent and licensing fees.
Smith's interests outside research and chemistry were varied. He was a discerning art collector. During a period in the mid-1970s he purchased the Kimberly Diamond, one of the largest yellow diamonds ever to be found in South Africa. Also he designed his own ocean-going yacht, Synthesis. Finally, he also initialled his precious metals portfolio, particularly in platinum.
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