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Koji Nakanishi


Koji Nakanishi, PhD, professor emeritus of chemistry at Columbia University, died on March 28, 2019, at age 93, in New York City, New York, after a brief illness. Nakanishi focused on the isolation and study of bioactive compounds and the development of spectroscopic methods for identification.

Natural product chemist Michael Tempesta, PhD, who completed two post-doctoral sessions under Nakanishi’s tutelage, commented: “For those of us close to the natural products chemistry, bioorganic chemistry, and many other life sciences/healing fields, it was clear that Koji was unique among scientists and researchers. His ability to bridge the disciplines and encourage others in the pursuit, as well as the development, of many new techniques for determination of structural features in stereochemical situations was fundamental” (email, April 2, 2019).

Born in Hong Kong on May 11, 1925, Nakanishi earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Nagoya University in Japan in 1947. He earned a Fulbright scholarship, reportedly the first awarded to a Japanese student following World War II, and studied at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under Louis Fieser, PhD, from 1950 to 1952. After completing his Fulbright program, he returned to Nagoya University for his PhD, which he earned in 1954. His teaching career began shortly after, and he served as an assistant professor at Nagoya until 1958.

Nakanishi taught as a professor of chemistry at two of Japan’s most prestigious universities: the Tokyo University of Education (now known as the University of Tsukuba) in Tsukuba from 1958 to 1963 and Tohoku University in Sendai from 1963 to 1969. One of his students at the Tokyo University of Education, Satoshi Omura, PhD, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015 jointly with William C. Campbell, PhD, for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites.

Nakanishi began to take a global approach to his research at this time and was a founding member and the first director of research at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1969, the same year he joined the faculty of Columbia University. In 1980, Columbia named him Centennial Professor of Chemistry, a title he held until his death.

In 1967, Nakanishi used his pioneering methods of isolation and identification to elucidate the structure of ginkgolides from Ginkgo biloba (Ginkgoaceae). The effects of ginkgo extract on neurological disorders would become a major research focus for his team in the chemistry department at Columbia. He also studied bioactive compounds from other sources, including illudins produced by some mushrooms and taxine alkaloids from yew (Taxus spp., Taxaceae). Other research interests included the study of toxins from insects and single-celled organisms; retinal proteins to determine the cause and progression of macular degeneration; and the development of mass spectrometric protocols to sequence membrane proteins.

During his tenure at Columbia, Nakanishi served as the chairman of the chemistry department from 1987 to 1990, mentored more than 300 doctoral students, and published approximately 750 papers. From 1979 to 1991, he served as the first director of the nonprofit Suntory Institute for Bioorganic Research (now known as the Suntory Foundation for Life Sciences) in Osaka, Japan, and assisted the Brazilian government with the establishment of the Institute of Medicinal and Ecological Chemistry in São Paulo. He published his autobiography, A Wandering Natural Products Chemist (American Chemical Society), in 1991. In addition to his academic papers and autobiography, Nakanishi also authored, co-authored, or edited eight more books on spectroscopy and natural products research and served on the editorial board of Phytomedicine from 1997 to 2016.

From 2001 to 2003, Nakanishi served as the director of chemistry at the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 project in Oracle, Arizona. Biosphere 2, a research facility and academic center focused on earth sciences, contains a glass-domed building that simulates five different biomes, including rainforest and savannah, and allows students at the undergraduate and graduate levels to study the chemistry of plants grown in these conditions without ultraviolet light.

Nakanishi received many recognitions, awards, and honors over his six-decade career. The first, awarded in 1954, was the Award in Pure Chemistry from the Chemical Society of Japan (CSJ). Other notable awards include: the Centenary Prize from the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1978/1979; the first Norman R. Farnsworth Research Achievement Award from the American Society of Pharmacognosy (ASP) in 1985; the Imperial Prize of the Japan Academy in 1990; the William H. Nichols Medal Award from the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 1992; the King Faisal International Prize for Science in 2003; and the Silver Medal Award from the International Society of Chemical Ecology in 2007.

Perhaps the most significant honor was the foundation of the Nakanishi Prize, which was jointly established by the ACS and CSJ in 1995. This was the first award from the ACS to bear a person’s name and was created “to recognize and stimulate significant work that extends chemical and spectroscopic methods to the study of important biological phenomena.”1 The award is presented in alternating years by ACS or CSJ.

Nakanishi also has been recognized with honorary issues of the journals Chirality (1997), Heterocycles (1998), and Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry (2005). He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the New York Academy of Sciences, ASP, the Accademia Nazionale delle Scienze in Italy, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He received honorary degrees from Williams College, Georgetown University, and Uppsala University; honorary professorships from Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica and Tohoku University; and honorary memberships to the Pharmaceutical Society of Japan, CSJ, and the Japanese Biochemical Society.

In his personal life, Nakanishi was an amateur magician who enjoyed performing sleight-of-hand tricks during parties, faculty meetings, and academic conferences.

Tempesta recalled his mentor’s good nature: “Koji as a person was humorous and kind, and his genius was openly shared with all his students, colleagues, and friends on a daily basis for many decades. His love of magic and the ability to perform spontaneous shows under many unusual circumstances were most likely the origin of Koji’s need to combine new spectroscopic techniques when determining structures of compounds from very interesting natural sources — to have the final results appear ‘like magic.’… He will be missed by those of us fortunate enough to have spent time together with him during the journey.”

Koji Nakanishi was preceded in death by his wife Yasuko, and is survived by his children Keiko and Jun, grandchildren Aya, Kenji, and Pico, and a great-granddaughter.


  1. Nakanishi Prize. American Chemical Society website. Available at: Accessed April 10, 2019.