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Donald James Cram
Born April 22, 1919
Died June 17, 2001 (aged 82)
Nationality American
Alma mater Rollins College (BS)
University of Nebraska (MS)
Harvard University (PhD)
Known for Cram's rule
Host–guest chemistry
phenonium ions
Awards Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1987)
Glenn T. Seaborg Medal (1989)
National Medal of Science (1993)
Guggenheim fellowship (1955)
Scientific career
Fields Chemistry
Institutions UCLA, Merck & Co, MIT
  • Amino ketones, mechanism studies of the reactions of heterocyclic secondary amines with -bromo-, -unsaturated ketones. (1942)
  • Syntheses and reactions of 2-(ketoalkyl)-3-hydroxy-1, 4-naphthoquinones (1947)
Doctoral advisor Louis Fieser
Doctoral students M. Frederick Hawthorne
Norman L. Allinger

Donald James Cram (April 22, 1919 – June 17, 2001) was an American chemist who shared the 1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Jean-Marie Lehn and Charles J. Pedersen "for their development and use of molecules with structure-specific interactions of high selectivity." They were the founders of the field of host–guest chemistry.

Early life and education

Cram was born and raised in Chester, Vermont, to a Scottish immigrant father, and a German immigrant mother. His father died before Cram turned four, leaving him the only male in a family of five. He grew up on Aid to Dependent Children, and learned to work at an early age, doing jobs such as picking fruit, tossing newspapers, and painting houses, while bartering for piano lessons. By the time he turned eighteen, he had worked at least eighteen different jobs.

Cram attended the Winwood High School in Long Island, N.Y. From 1938 to 1941, he attended Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida on a national honorary scholarship, where he worked as an assistant in the chemistry department, and was active in theater, chapel choir, Lambda Chi Alpha, Phi Society, and Zeta Alpha Epsilon. It was at Rollins that he became known for building his own chemistry equipment. In 1941, he graduated from Rollins College with a BS in chemistry.

In 1942, he graduated from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with a MS in organic chemistry, with Norman O. Cromwell serving as his thesis adviser. His subject was "Amino ketones, mechanism studies of the reactions of heterocyclic secondary amines with -bromo-, -unsaturated ketones."

In 1947, Cram graduated from Harvard University with a PhD in organic chemistry, with Louis Fieser serving as the adviser on his dissertation on "Syntheses and reactions of 2-(ketoalkyl)-3-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinones"


From 1942 to 1945, Cram worked in chemical research at Merck & Co laboratories, doing penicillin research with mentor Max Tishler. Postdoctoral work was as an American Chemical Society postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with John D. Roberts. Cram was the originator of Cram's rule, which provides a model for predicting the outcome of nucleophilic attack of carbonyl compounds. He published over 350 research papers and eight books on organic chemistry, and taught graduate and post-doctoral students from 21 different countries.


Nitrobenzene bound within hemicarcerand from Chemical Communications (1997)
Crystal structure of a nitrobenzene bound within a hemicarcerand reported by Cram and coworkers

Cram expanded upon Charles Pedersen's ground-breaking synthesis of crown ethers, two-dimensional organic compounds that are able to recognize and selectively combine with the ions of certain metal elements. He synthesized molecules that took this chemistry into three dimensions, creating an array of differently shaped molecules that could interact selectively with other chemicals because of their complementary three-dimensional structures. Cram's work represented a large step toward the synthesis of functional laboratory-made mimics of enzymes and other natural molecules whose special chemical behavior is due to their characteristic structure. He also did work in stereochemistry and Cram's rule of asymmetric induction is named after him.

In 1973, Cram collaborated on research with Irish chemist Francis Leslie Scott.


Cram was named an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1947, and a professor in 1955. He served there until his retirement in 1987. He was a popular teacher, having instructed some 8,000 undergraduates in his career and guided the academic output of 200 graduate students. He entertained his classes by strumming his guitar and singing folk songs.

Awards and honors

Personal life

Cram once admitted that his career wasn't without sacrifice. His first wife was Rollins classmate, Jean Turner, who also graduated in 1941, and went on to receive a master's degree in social work from Columbia University. His second wife, Jane, is a former chemistry professor at Mount Holyoke College. Cram chose not to have any children, "because I would either be a bad father or a bad scientist."

Cram died of cancer in 2001, at the age of 82.

See also

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