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M. Frederick Hawthorne awarded national medal of science

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 1, 2013 - At the age of 77, celebrated chemist M. Frederick Hawthorne decided to make a career move. He pulled up stakes in sunny California, his home for more than four decades, filled three 18-wheelers with a lifetime of research, and headed for the Midwest in search of the holy grail.

The search is centered on boron, a chemical element derived from common borax, which has been successfully used to treat heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

“In 1956, I started my studies in boron chemistry when no one knew about it,” Hawthorne said. “I pretty much pioneered it and along the way I picked up cancer therapy and augmented it with BNCT around 1960.”

The modest pronouncement belied the significance of what Hawthorne, director of the International Institute of Nano and Molecular Medicine at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has achieved.

His boron neutron aapture therapy (BNCT) is being used in experimental radiation treatments of cancers, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases.

The technique offers hope for a cancer cure, the holy grail, through “an elegant selectivity for the killing of cells,” Hawthorne said. And there’s an added bonus.

“Dr. Hawthorne took a toxic product and developed something non-toxic to fight cancer without destroying other cells,” said MU Chancellor Brady Deaton, adding, “He’s world famous for his work in chemistry.”

Soon, he’ll be a little more famous.

START UPDATE: Today, Hawthorne and 11 others accepted the national medal of science award, the nation's highest honor for scientists, in a White House ceremony. Hawthorne, walking with a cane, wore a black suit and blue striped tie.

Hawthorne's citation read: "For highly creative pioneering research in inorganic, organometallic, and medicinal borane chemistry; sustained and profound contributions to scientific and technical advice related to national security; and for effective, prolific, and devoted service to the broad field of chemical sciences." END UPDATE

Hawthorne has been preparing for such an award his entire life.

Dust Bowl ‘rebel’

An only child, Hawthorne was born in Fort Scott, Kan., a U.S. Army outpost during the Civil War. He lived there until he entered first grade. It was the beginning of the family’s Dust Bowl odyssey through Kansas and Missouri.

His father’s work as a civil engineer for the federal government kept the family on the move. Hawthorne had attended 22 schools by the time he graduated from high school.

“It was a pretty interesting life,” Hawthorne conceded. “For me, it was stimulating because I constantly had to meet new people. If you change schools two or three times a year, you develop a knack for it.”

Some school days were cut short by dirt storms.

“Once a month or so, by 10 in the morning, it would be dark as night,” Hawthorne recalled. “Street lights would come on and (we) were sent home with wet handkerchiefs over our faces.

“I got used to it; I just thought that’s the way the world worked.”

An admitted "rebel," Hawthorne was eager to be on his own.

“I wanted to succeed in science and become independent of my parents,” he said. “I remember kicking the can to school at 8 or 9, wishing I could grow up quicker, thinking I’d rather be somewhere else.”

Hawthorne decided that the way to freedom was to earn it and the way to earn it was to be good at something. He chose science.

By the time he was 12 or 13, he had built a polymer lab in his home. At 15, he had a paper route and was auditing a chemistry lecture at Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy in Rolla, now Missouri University of Science and Technology.

“At 4 a.m., I’d get on my bike and do my route; at 8 a.m., I stopped at the lecture hall in freshman chemistry,” Hawthorne said.  

His schedule didn’t leave much time for softball, fishing or any of the other pursuits that captured the free time of most teenagers.

“When I got time off, I’d go to the lab,” Hawthorne said. “My parents worried about ‘balance,’ but they didn’t discourage me.”

Right place, right time

They need not have worried; Hawthorne was on the fast track to distinction.

He first gained notice from R. Nelson Smith, a professor at the School of Mines, who gave him a hand with his homemade lab.

Before graduating from high school, he passed a test to enter the School of Mines. He completed his degree in chemistry at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., then immediately pursued and attained his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at UCLA. He returned to the Midwest for postdoctoral work at Iowa State University.

Hawthorne launched his career in borane cluster chemistry at Rohm and Haas Co. in Huntsville, Ala.

In 1962, he became an educator, when he joined the faculty of the University of California system. In 1998, he was named university professor of chemistry, the University of California’s most distinguished title.  His visiting lectureships included Harvard and the University of London.

With an established reputation for his work with boron, Hawthorne became a much sought-after speaker. MU Chancellor Deaton invited him to speak in 2005.

To Hawthorne’s surprise, Deaton said, “‘Fred, why don’t you just move here?”

The following year, Hawthorne retired from UCLA and founded the International Institute of Nano and Molecular Medicine (I2NM2) at MU, where he is also curators’ distinguished professor of chemistry and radiology.

He was persuaded by the university’s multiple resources -- a medical school, veterinary school, engineering school -- and something his work had lacked at UCLA: a neutron source necessary to test the efficacy of boron neutron capture therapy. MU had just the thing, MURR, the largest research nuclear reactor in the country. It has a neutron beam line dedicated to BNCT.

“(BNCT) is a binary radiation,” Hawthorne explains. “Together, a boron compound and a dose of neutrons kill the cancer. It is very clean, very selective and when it’s working, it’s very deadly.”

Besides studies on boron, the center focuses on applications of nanotechnology in medicine, engineering microscopic motors, inventing methods to store hydrogen fuel and designing materials to store energy.


Satish S. Jalisatgi, the center’s assistant director and assistant professor of radiology, said Hawthorne is driven by his “intellectual pursuit of chemistry.”

“He’s dedicated to this area of chemistry,” Jalisatgi said. “He singlehandedly drove this new application where chemistry, nuclear science and medicine come together. His primary focus is finding a cure for cancer. ”

Hawthorne believes he’s on “the cusp of success.” Tests of BNCT are on schedule, Hawthorne says, touting a formidable success rate.

“We’ve treated 300 mice and lost only one who was sick when he went in,” Hawthorne said. “We’ve treated cancer in 50 hamsters and haven’t lost a single hamster and have cured some. We’ve had sensational results.”

Past studies used less effective compounds and death rates were fairly high.

The next step is testing of large animals; in this case, dogs. Unlike mice, which are injected with cancer cells and hamsters, whose cancers are induced with a carcinogenic compound, dogs subjected to research must have acquired cancer naturally.

Watch an inteview with Fred Hawthorne, "Mr. Organic Chemistry."

With proper funding – no small challenge – Hawthorne expects large animal trials to begin within a year. He hopes human testing can begin within five years.

“Right now the results we have are absolute game changers; no one has been this lucky before,” Hawthorne said. “I have great confidence in our future.

Cancer survivor

“I feel like it’s been a long, long road, but I’ve enjoyed the search and here I am 84 years old and I’m still going,” Hawthorne marveled. “I have no regrets about anything.”

Marion Frederick Hawthorne, who no one knows by the “old-fashioned, Southern” first name he inherited from his maternal grandfather, has come face to face with cancer twice.

Five years ago, he was diagnosed with oral squamous cell carcinoma.

Despite chemotherapy and 35 radiation treatments, his cancer persisted, leaving him with one option: surgery.

Hawthorne, who speaks quietly but distinctly and with great enthusiasm, lost half his tongue lengthwise to the excision. 

Thyroid cancer struck a year later and his thyroid was removed.

All of his treatments were at MU’s Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.

“The oldest, crudest method worked,” he said without alluding to what might have been if his therapy had been available.

Right place, right time

The National Science Award is merely Hawthorne’s latest in a long line of honors, which include the 2003 King Faisal International Prize for Science and the 2009 Priestley Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the American Chemical Society.

He spent 32 years of his nearly 70-year career guiding Inorganic Chemistry, making him the publication’s longest-serving editor-in-chief.

“If you analyze my career, I’ve always been in the right place at the right time,” Hawthorne insists humbly.

He has two daughters and his wife Diana, a transplanted Californian whom he says now loves the Midwest, has four children.

When Hawthorne, often called “Mr. Inorganic Chemistry,” was interviewed for a 50th celebration of Inorganic Chemistry, he admitted a fear. 

“I have always worried about retirement as I grew older and I like chemistry very much and science, scientists, students, everything about it,” he said. “To leave that to arbitrarily say, ‘Oh, I’m going to stop doing this and stay home and work in the garden or watch TV or just sit around and vegetate’ – I couldn’t do that.”

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.