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William S. Knowles 1917-2012

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Monsanto knew what Bill Knowles had achieved. Twenty years later, the rest of the world recognized his achievement.

With degrees from Harvard and Columbia universities, William S. Knowles joined Monsanto as a scientist in 1942, working in organic chemistry at the company’s lab in Dayton, Ohio. Three years later, he moved to Monsanto’s research facilities at headquarters in St. Louis. His career progressed, and in 1968 he began to tackle a perplexing problem.

Like a number of molecules, the drug dopamine contains mirror images. L-Dopa could treat Parkinson’s disease. D-Dopa was toxic. But the two came together and separating them to produce the beneficial one was expensive and time-consuming.

From 1968 to 1972, Bill Knowles led a team that redesigned a catalyst that separated the toxic form. Scientists at other institutions carried the work forward.

But Bill Knowles and his team changed modern medicine. They showed it could be done.

In 1981, Monsanto honored the Knowles team, which included Dr. Billy Vineyard and Dr. Jerry Sabacky, with the first-ever Charles A. Thomas and Carol A. Hochwalt Award for their breakthrough leading to the commercialization of L-Dopa.

Twenty years later, in 2001, Bill Knowles received a phone call very early in the morning from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Knowles and two other scientists, Ryoji Noyori of Nagoya University in Japan and K. Barry Sharpless of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, were receiving the Nobel Prize for chemistry – all for their work on L-Dopa.

Bill was 84 at the time. He had retired from Monsanto in 1986.

His share of the Nobel Prize money came to more than $200,000. He shared part of it with the two Monsanto colleagues he had worked with on L-Dopa, and gave the rest to Harvard and Columbia. He kept none for himself.

On Wednesday, June 13, Bill Knowles died at his home in suburban St. Louis.

His family and friends knew him as a husband, father and grandfather; and as an avid bicyclist and the restorer of native prairie grasses. A farm he and his wife Nancy owned near the Missouri River in St. Charles County has been willed to the county as a park.

Monsanto knew him as a dedicated and innovative scientist and team leader.

The world knows him for what he did that led to help for people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. June 30 at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 1166 South Mason Road in Town and Country, a suburb of St. Louis.


The obituaries in The New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

A 2001 interview with Bill Knowles in the Webster-Kirkwood (Mo.) Times.

Monsanto’s 2001 news release congratulating Knowles on receiving the Nobel Prize.

Photograph courtesy of the Academy of Science – St. Louis.

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