William Standish Knowles
Born(1917-06-01)June 1, 1917
DiedJune 13, 2012(2012-06-13) (aged 95)
EducationHarvard University (AB)
Columbia University (PhD)
Known forChiral phosphine ligands that proved effective in the enantioselective synthesis of L-DOPA
AwardsNobel Prize in Chemistry (2001)
Scientific career
InstitutionsThomas and Hochwalt Laboratories
Monsanto Company
ThesisA preliminary investigation of the constituents of Astragalus wootoni. Β-substituted-Δα, Β-butenolides of the naphthalene, indene and norcholane series (1942)
Doctoral advisorRobert Elderfield

William Standish Knowles (June 1, 1917 – June 13, 2012) was an American chemist. He was born in Taunton, Massachusetts. Knowles was one of the recipients of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He split half the prize with Ryōji Noyori for their work in asymmetric synthesis, specifically for his work in hydrogenation reactions. The other half was awarded to K. Barry Sharpless for his work in oxidation reactions.[1]


Knowles attended Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts. He led his class academically and upon graduation was admitted to Harvard University. Feeling that he was too young to go to college, Knowles spent a year at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. At the end of the year, he captured his first award in chemistry, the school's $50 Boylston Prize.[2]

After his year in preparatory school, Knowles attended Harvard, where he majored in chemistry, focusing on organic chemistry. He received his undergraduate degree in 1939, and attended Columbia University for graduate school.[2]

Awards and honors

Nobel Prize

He shared half of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001 with Ryōji Noyori for "their work on chirally catalysed hydrogenation reactions". The other half of the prize was awarded to K. Barry Sharpless for the development of a range of catalytic asymmetric oxidations. Knowles developed one of the first asymmetric hydrogenation catalysts by replacing the achiral triphenylphosphine ligands in Wilkinson's catalyst with chiral phosphine ligands. This experimental catalyst was effective for enantioselective synthesis, achieving a modest 15% enantiomeric excess.

Knowles was also the first to apply enantioselective metal catalysis to industrial-scale synthesis; while working for the Monsanto Company he developed an enantioselective hydrogenation step for the production of L-DOPA, utilising the DIPAMP ligand.[6][7]

Synthesis of L-DOPA via hydrogenation with C2-symmetric diphosphine.

Personal life

Following his retirement in 1986, Knowles resided in Chesterfield, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. In retirement he restored native prairie grasses on a 100-acre farm that his wife had inherited. He was married to his wife, Nancy, for 66 years and had four children, Elizabeth, Peter, Sarah and Lesley. He also had four grandchildren. Knowles died in Chesterfield on June 13, 2012, at age 95. He and his wife had previously stated that their farm would be donated to be converted into a city park after their deaths.[8]


  1. ^ Yun, O. (2005). "Profile of William S. Knowles". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 102 (47): 16913–16915. Bibcode:2005PNAS..10216913Y. doi:10.1073/pnas.0507546102. PMC 1287994. PMID 16286647.
  2. ^ a b "William S. Knowles – Autobiography". The Nobel Foundation. Archived from the original on 2011-06-21. Retrieved 2011-04-07.
  3. ^ "Chemical Pioneer Award". American Institute of Chemists. Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  4. ^ David M. Isserman / Isserman Consulting LLC / www.isserman.com (2012-04-19). "Academy of Science – St. Louis :: Academy Initiatives :: Outstanding St. Louis Scientists Awards". Academyofsciencestl.org. Archived from the original on 2014-02-01. Retrieved 2012-06-16.
  5. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-09-28. Retrieved 2011-07-08.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ Vineyard, B. D.; Knowles, W. S.; Sabacky, M. J.; Bachman, G. L.; Weinkauff, D. J. (1977). "Asymmetric hydrogenation. Rhodium chiral bisphosphine catalyst". Journal of the American Chemical Society. 99 (18): 5946–5952. doi:10.1021/ja00460a018.
  7. ^ Knowles, William S. (2002). "Asymmetric Hydrogenations (Nobel Lecture) Copyright© The Nobel Foundation 2002. We thank the Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, for permission to print this lecture". Angewandte Chemie International Edition. 41 (12): 1998. doi:10.1002/1521-3773(20020617)41:12<1998::AID-ANIE1998>3.0.CO;2-8.
  8. ^ "William Knowles, Nobel Winner in Chemistry, Dies at 95". The New York Times. June 15, 2012.