In Memoriam William Jencks

Bill Jencks was one of the fathers of mechanistic enzymology. This field explains how enzymes work; how the protein molecules that we call enzymes are able to enhance the rates of chemical reactions tens of thousands-fold. Bill provided the foundations for this new field. He did this by bringing physical-organic chemistry to bear on enzyme mechanisms. In so doing Bill dramatically enhanced our understanding of cell metabolism, biological energy utilization, and rational drug design.

Through his research, his teaching, and his classic textbook “Catalysis in Chemistry and Enzymology” Bill showed generations of scientists that enzyme action can be understood by the application of fundamental principles of physical organic chemistry.

Bill received many honors and awards. The list is too long to recite here in detail. The most important included his election to the National Academy of Sciences, and to the Royal Society.

Bill was born in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1927. He was the son of Gardner Jencks, a composer of twelve tone music, and Elinor Cheetham. He graduated from Harvard College in 1947 and Harvard Medical School in 1951. After his internship at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, he did his army service at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in its Department of Pharmacology. While there he published his first paper, which was on distinguishing the protein composition of blood from normal and heart disease-prone people. Over 50 years later, such blood analyses are done routinely for the blood proteins LDL and HDL.

He returned to Boston to do a post-doctoral fellowship with Fritz Lipmann at the Mass General from 1955-1956 (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1953), and with R. B. Woodward from 1956-1957 (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1965). In 1957, Bill joined the Biochemistry Department which had just been started at Brandeis by Nate Kaplan, who had also worked under Fritz Lipmann.

Bill attracted many outstanding students and post-doctoral fellows, a remarkable number of which became outstanding scientists in their own right and who populate positions of high honor and responsibility still.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was popular to put scientists into two categories: “classical” and “romantic.” Bill clearly fitted the “classical” pattern.

Bill’s famous text was a model of clarity. It reminds me of one of Goethe’s aphorisms. Goethe applied it to poets, but it can be equally well applied to Bill: “The poet should write about the specific, and, if he is any good, he will express the universal.”

Bill’s lectures illustrated another of Goethe aphorisms: “Everything is simpler than you think, and, at the same time, more complex then you imagine.”

A few remembrances of the early days, limited to Bill Jencks: Members of the Biochemistry Department would get together every other week to read plays, usually Shakespeare’s. I remember that the first was Julius Cesar. We went on picnics, which included members from the Chemistry, Physics, and Biology departments. We went to Brandeis concerts and to chamber music concerts in our home, run by my late, first wife, who was a gifted cellist. As our children got older and outside responsibilities, such as study sections, grew, these get togethers became less frequent. We still saw each other at concerts and plays in town, but this too became less frequent.

Bill was a member of the first large scale study of the efficacy of aspirin in reducing heart disease, the so-called doctors study. It was a double-blinded study, involving over 20 thousand doctors, which was stopped halfway through, because it was felt unfair to deprive the control group, which did not get aspirin, of the obvious benefits of taking aspirin. With that result, Bill and I both started taking a daily aspirin. (Long since reduced to a daily baby aspirin.)

It was a privilege to have had Bill as a colleague and I will conclude with a quotation from the Bard:

A good leg will fall,
A straight back will stoop.
A black beard will turn white,
A curl’d pate will grow bald,
A fair face will wither,
A full eye will wax hollow,
But a good heart is the sun and the moon,
For it shines bright and never changes,
But keeps its course truly.

Henry V – V, ii

Bill is survived by his wife of 56 years Miriam, children Sara and David, grandson Benjamin, and siblings Charles Jencks, Penelope Jencks-Hurwitz, and John Cheetham.

John Lowenstein, February 1, 2007