Chemistry Prof. Koji Nakanishi Remains Hard at Work at 87

Beth Kwon
February 20, 2013

When Koji Nakanishi retired six years ago, the chemistry department threw a party for him, complete with a cake that said, “Happy Retirement, Koji. See you tomorrow!” Sure enough, he was back in his Chandler Hall office the next day, where he continues to work six days a week. “I’m 87 years old, but I still work Saturdays until at least 8 o’clock,” says Nakanishi, the Centennial Professor Emeritus of Chemistry. “It’s an addiction.”

Nakanishi studies biologically active compounds—substances from living organisms that have a pharmacological use. He developed new methods of spectroscopy, the study of compounds using light and radiated energy, and isolated for the first time the chemical structures of more than 200 compounds, including wasp and snake venoms, pigment from the human eye and extract from the ginkgo tree.

One focus of his research is age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in older people. His lab is working on using blueberry extract to prevent and treat the disease, as well as continuing to research uses for other natural products.

Born in Hong Kong in 1925, Nakanishi lived in France, England and Egypt until he was 10, when his father, employed by what is now the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, was transferred back to Japan. He did his undergraduate work at Nagoya University. majoring in chemistry. “I liked science,” he says. “I wasn’t mathematically oriented, so I became an organic chemist.”

After graduating in 1947, Nakanishi says he was the first Japanese student to study in the U.S. after World War II under a program that provided relief to occupied countries. He studied at Harvard for two years and returned to Japan to receive his Ph.D. from his alma mater. He taught at three universities in Japan before arriving at Columbia in 1969.

Nakanishi began studying the ginkgo tree while still in Japan, drawn to its longevity. “The ginkgo tree is from the era of dinosaurs, but while the dinosaur has been extinguished, the modern ginkgo has not changed,” he says. “After the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, the ginkgo was the first tree that came up. It’s amazing.” More recently, Nakanishi and his colleagues have been studying the use of ginkgo tree extract to slow the effect of amyloid peptides, which are widely believed to cause the brain to degrade in Alzheimer’s patients. Though recent studies have contradicted claims that the extract aids in preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s, Nakanishi says his work disputes those findings.

Nakanishi’s office is filled with knickknacks and mementos of his 44 years of teaching at Columbia—a miniature ginkgo tree, tiny origami cranes, models of molecular compounds, and numerous figurines of cows and bulls. (He was born in the year of the ox, according to the Chinese calendar.)

He has written 800 papers and nine books, including "A Wandering Natural Products Chemist," a 1991 autobiography published by the American Chemical Society. The book revealed Nakanishi’s adventurous side, showing him eating raw snake at a specialty snake store in Tokyo in 1960. His wife, Yasuko, also featured prominently, serving as a test audience for his amateur magic tricks, and keeping his ox collection in check. The two were married for 63 years, and she died in 2008. He has two children and three grandchildren.

In 1999 the Emperor and Empress of Japan presented Nakanishi with the “Person of Cultural Merit” prize, one of the country’s highest honors. It is among a long list of distinctions he has received from a dozen countries, including the Welch Award in chemistry, the Arthur C. Cope Award of the American Chemical Society and the Imperial Prize of the Japan Academy. In 1996, a prize was named in his honor, the Nakanishi Prize of the American Chemical Society and the Chemical Society of Japan.

In spite of the accolades and accomplishments from his nearly 70 years of academic research, Nakanishi considers his “pride and honor” to be the numerous students who have worked in his lab, including 200 Ph.D.’s. “Seven hundred Ph.D.’s and post-docs have gone through my lab,” he says. “Three hundred are now professors. I am very lucky and grateful.”