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Professor Andrew David HAMILTON

75th Congregation (2013)

Professor Andrew David HAMILTON
Doctor of Laws


If you were told you were about to meet a world leader in the field of molecular recognition and a pioneer in the design of farnesyltransferase inhibitors, someone who became quite excited when looking at fume hoods in chemical laboratories, you might be a little anxious. Maybe this would be an incomprehensible “boffin” with no social skills, immersed in esoteric science experiments, but without much interest in ordinary people. What would you talk about? Supposing you were then told that on the same occasion you were going to meet the only man to have been both the Provost of Yale University and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. You would feel even more anxious. Surely anyone who had held both of these world-leading university roles would have to be a remote and intimidating person. And besides, meeting both of these two people at the same time, the boffin and the top-level university leader: how would you manage that? There would be four things you needed to know before your meetings with these two men. The first is that there is nothing esoteric about farnesyltransferase inhibitors. They are a class of drug based on synthetised molecules which disrupt or inhibit the growth and functioning of a certain protein, and that protein is abnormally active in cancers. So the drug is especially effective in slowing the growth of tumors. A closely related enzyme developed as part of the same research has also led to new approaches to treating malaria and sleeping sickness, two of the worst health scourges in equatorial regions across the world and in Africa especially. This is research of direct application in both cancer and malaria treatment. It is hard to imagine anything more useful for human health. The second thing you would need to know is that the scientific pioneer is not some introverted “lab rat”. He is on record as saying that the most important things scientists produce are not their research results, but the people who pass through their laboratories and classrooms: the undergraduates, graduates and post-doctoral students. This researcher is first and foremost a teacher. The third thing you would need to know is that the remote university leader is still active in research and teaching, and firmly believes that a university administration must always remain in tune with the ethos and aspirations of academic colleagues. He will tell you that while the administrative structures in Yale and Oxford are very different (for example, the President’s Office in Yale is several times larger than the Vice-Chancellor ’s Office in Oxford!), both exist entirely to serve the interests of their colleagues and institutions. This is a man for whom to lead is to serve. And of course the fourth and final thing you would need to know is that these two men, the science “boffin” and the university leader, are the same man. A most approachable and likeable man, too, who when he was younger loved playing and coaching sport, and who still loves watching it today, whether soccer, rugby or American Rules football; whose parents were both teachers, so that under their influence he in turn became a teacher; and who has three grown children of his own, all of whom went to Yale. Andrew Hamilton was born in Guildford, the county town of Surrey, near London, in 1952. His schooling in the Royal Grammar School in Guildford was what led originally him into chemistry, although he admits this did not happen until his final year, as before that he had spent far too much time playing rugby and cricket. But in that final year he began to realize, as he says, the beauty of organic transformations and the challenge of translating mechanistic understanding into synthetic innovation. He took his first degree at the University of Exeter, his Masters at the University of British Columbia (where he also learned to ski), and his PhD at the University of Cambridge. Under his mentors, David Dolphin at UBC, Sir Alan Battersby at Cambridge and Jean-Marie Lehn during his post-doctoral work at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, he had become fascinated by the question, “if nature can do it, why can't we?”: by the challenge of reproducing in a structure synthesized in a laboratory the chemical micro-environment of a biological system. Chemistry could mimic biology. His Cambridge group learned, for example, to mimic the naturally occurring antibiotic vancomycin in a form that could be readily recognized by the body. Following successful teaching appointments as Assistant Professor at Princeton University and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, Professor Hamilton went to Yale in 1997 as the Irénée duPont (later the Benjamin Silliman) Professor of Chemistry, and as the Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. At that time the Provost of Yale was Professor Alison Richard, who not long after went on to become Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. She it was who encouraged Professor Hamilton to think about university administration, and in 2004 he in turn became Provost at Yale. In that role he managed a $2.8 billion operating budget, and was responsible for the university’s acquisition of the West Campus, formerly the research and development centre in the US of Bayer Healthcare. This nearly doubled the university’s size. He also re-established the School of Engineering and Applied Science, reformed the tenure process and carried out an important enhancement of the undergraduate curriculum. International recognition of Professor Hamilton’s academic achievements arrived during these productive years. In 1999 he received the Arthur C Cope Scholar Award from the American Chemical Society. In 2004 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Following these resounding successes while at Yale, and possibly still thinking of Alison Richard’s advice, as well as her own move to a rival institution, Andrew Hamilton was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford in 2009. Since then under his leadership, during the challenging period following the 2010 Browne Review of Higher Education, the University has developed a comprehensive new strategic plan, received some remarkable philanthropic donations, made progress in diversifying the student population, and set in train a massive programme of digitizing the university’s operation and information systems. Professor Hamilton has also during this time been elected a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2010), and received the International Izatt Christensen Award in Macrocylic Chemistry (2011). He is still able to be both of those two men: the scientist and the university leader. For his significant contributions to the field of molecular recognition in chemistry, and to international university leadership at the highest level, it gives me great pleasure, Mr Chairman, to present to you Professor Andrew David Hamilton, for the award of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.