William Bonner, professor emeritus of chemistry, dead at 87

Wiliam Bonner

William Bonner

William A. Bonner, professor emeritus of chemistry at Stanford University, died Oct. 1 at Cedar Crest Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Sunnyvale, where he had been recuperating from heart failure. He was 87.

A member of the Stanford chemistry faculty for 37 years, his research interests centered on organic chemistry. In particular, he was intrigued with the question of how amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, developed the consistent structural asymmetry that enables proteins to fold themselves into the living structures that are the basis for all life on Earth.

Some organic molecules are asymmetric and characterized as either left-handed or right-handed, according to the orientation of the arrangement of atoms relative to the carbon core of the molecule. But while for most asymmetric molecules nature produces equal numbers of each orientation, the essential amino acids—and the proteins built of them—are almost exclusively left-handed. Why this should be so has puzzled scientists since its discovery.

Bonner scrutinized the different theories attempting to explain the phenomenon and found them all lacking. There was, he concluded, literally no way on Earth the dominance of the left-handed structure could be accounted for.

But discussions Bonner had with Edward Rubenstein, a professor of medicine (now emeritus) who was working with synchrotron radiation at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, led the two researchers to announce a new theory in 1983 (Nature, Nov. 10, 1983).

Bonner had deduced that circularly polarized radiation, which spirals like a badminton birdie, could preferentially destroy molecules of one type of "handedness" over the other. Rubenstein knew that when a giant star collapses in an immense, instantaneous explosion called a supernova, such spiraling radiation was generated.

Thus, a supernova could produce a selective culling of the molecular herd, while simultaneously blasting the survivors out into space, where they could potentially end up on a planet, perhaps by hitching a ride on a comet.

Bonner and Rubenstein's theory will be one of several tested when the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft, launched in 2004, lands on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014.

Rubenstein has fond memories of Bonner. "He was a very wonderful colleague," Rubenstein said. "He was a very modest man and an extremely good experimentalist. I was lucky to get to know him."

Bonner also made significant contributions to synthetic and mechanistic organic chemistry, studying a number of important transformations and improving their utility.

Fellow faculty member John Brauman, the J. G. Jackson and C. J. Wood Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, remembers Bonner as a deep thinker and a great colleague. "When I was a junior faculty member he was incredibly helpful and supportive," Brauman said.

Born Dec. 21, 1919, in Chicago, Bonner earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard University in 1941 and a doctorate in chemistry from Northwestern University in 1944.

After working as an instructor at Northwestern in 1945 and 1946, he joined Stanford as an instructor in 1946. He was made an assistant professor in 1947 and earned full professorship in 1959. He retired from what he described as "my first and only permanent job" in 1983, becoming professor emeritus of chemistry.

He was awarded a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1952 and was the author of more than 200 scientific publications.

Outside the halls of academia, Bonner was often outside—underwater (scuba diving or snorkeling), hurtling down mountain slopes (downhill skiing), trodding trails in the Sierra Nevada or, prior to the drought of the late 1980s, simply gardening at home.

In a brief autobiography submitted for his 50th-year class reunion at Harvard in 1991, he noted he had by then forsaken the more "gung-ho" activities of his younger years in favor of "such tamer activities as photography, carpentry, bird-watching … and collecting shells and driftwood while ambling along the shore by our weekend getaway at La Selva Beach on Monterey Bay."

He was also an avid landscape painter, in oils and acrylics, often from his own photographs.

Bonner is survived by his second wife, Norma Bonner, whom he married in 1961, and his first wife, Cyrena Nelson of Menlo Park, as well as children R. Nelson Bonner of Pacific Grove; Dwarka Bonner of Taos, N. M.; Jay Bonner of Santa Fe, N. M.; and Terra Miller of Menlo Park, all from his first marriage. He also is survived by two stepdaughters from his marriage to Norma: Constance Mosley of La Selva Beach and Candace Lublin of St. Louis.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations in his memory be made to an environmental cause of the donor's choice.