Jacobs, Walter Abraham

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(b. Brooklyn, N.Y., 24 December 1883; d. Los Angeles, California, 12 July 1967)

organic chemistry.

Jacobs was born and raised in Brooklyn, where his father, a tailor, encouraged him to study science. After receiving the bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia University, he studied under Emil Fischer in Berlin, receiving the Ph.D. in 1907. He was then appointed fellow in chemistry at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, where he remained until his retirement fifty years later.

Jacobs’ first research, as assistant to the biochemist P. A. Levene, dealt with the chemistry of the nucleic acids. They identified the sugar units as D-ribose (1909), and determined several of the purine bases that occur in the RNA molecule. Levene and Jacobs designated the base-sugar unit a “nucleoside,” corresponding with Levene’s earlier designation of the base-sugar-phosphate unit as a “nucleotide.”

The director of the institute, Simon Flexner, was greatly interested in Paul Ehrlich’s discovery of the antisyphiiitic Salvarsan, and in 1912 he assigned Jacobs to head a new division of chemotherapy. In 1919 Jacobs and his assistant Michael Heidelberger developed the trypanocidal Trypars-amide, which proved highly effective in the treatment of sleeping sickness, then endemic in Africa. The two chemists, with the biologists Wade H. Brown and Louise Pierce, were later honored by the Belgian government.

In 1922 Jacobs abandoned research on chemo-therapeutic agents, and turned to structural investigations of pharmacologically significant natural products derived from plants. He and his co-work-ers established the general structural features of several of the cardiac glycosides derived fromStrophanthus squill, and digitalis; the non sugar moieties (aglycones) were all shown to be steroids. The last twenty-five years of Jacobs’ career were devoted to the study of alkaloids. He and Lyman Craig isolated lysergic acid from an ergot alkaloid in 1934; its structure was established in Jacobs’ laboratory during the next eleven years, by degradation and synthetic studies. Jacobs’ last researches concerned the elucidation of the general structures of several of the veratrine and aconite alkaloids.


I. Original Works. An extensive bibliography of over 200 of Jacobs’ scientific publications is in Poggen-dorff, VI, 1210–1212, and VMb, 2231–2233. Most of Jacobs’ papers appeared in Journal of Biological Chemistry and Journal of the American Chemical Society., He was author or coauthor of several government reports, but no book.

II. Secondary Literature. An obituary appeared in New York Times (14 July 1967), 31; and a biographical memoir by Lyman Craig was published in Rockefeller University Review (Nov.-Dec. 1967), 23–25, George W. Corner, History of the Rockefeller Institute; 1901–1953 (New York, 1964), contains many references to Jacobs’ is discussed in Joseph S. Fruton, Molecules and Life: Historical Essays on the Interplay of Chemistry and Biology (New York, 1972), 204–207.

Alan J. Rocke

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