Convocation 2008

Koe image
Dr. B. Kenneth Koe

Dr. B. Kenneth Koe

Vollum Award Recipient

President Diver; fellow members on the podium; members of the Reed faculty; trustees, guests, parents, and the new class of 2012:

I am greatly indebted to the Vollum Award committee for selecting me as the 2008 recipient of this prestigious award. It is genuinely an unexpected honor and a humbling experience to be placed on the same list of truly outstanding scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs. Interestingly, I have interacted personally with three awardees on this list.

One early recipient of the Vollum Award was Arthur F. Scott, who was my freshman chemistry professor and acting president of the college. His signature is on the diploma that I received from Reed in 1945.

Nowadays, when young people are juniors or seniors in high school, they and their parents begin to think of college, making plans, and scheduling visits to prospective schools. I’m sure that all of you new students here today have just gone through this rite of passage. This was certainly true of my late wife and me for my two daughters, both of whom have come to Portland today for this occasion. In contrast, when I was a senior at Lincoln High School, I really had no idea where I would be attending college, if at all. Coming from a poor family and living near Portland’s Chinatown, I applied for scholarships to several colleges within the city and hoped for the best.

Luckily, on the night of my high school graduation, I learned that Reed College had offered me a scholarship. So, in the fall of 1942 I enrolled at Reed as a commuter student—we were called “day dodgers” in those days—and embarked on an exhilarating intellectual journey. The Reed experience provided me with a solid background for graduate school at the University of Washington and Caltech.

The head of the chemistry department at Caltech at that time was Linus Pauling, who received the Vollum Award in 1979. Pauling gave freshman chemistry lectures that even graduate students liked to go to. One of the toughest courses that I took at Caltech was X-ray crystallography. As I struggled with this course, I met David Powell Shoemaker, a crystallographer at Caltech. Shoemaker received the Vollum Award in 1986. After I completed a PhD and two years as a postdoc, I took a job as a chemist with Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and taught organic chemistry at San Antonio College. The following year my late wife and I moved together to New York City where I started a new job with Pfizer in Brooklyn.

The highlights of my Pfizer career, which culminated in the discovery of the antidepressant Zoloft, have been described in the convocation program and the citation by Professor McDougal. An article in Science magazine in 2005 included Zoloft on its list of “blockbuster” drugs and effusively called their discoverers “super-inventors.” But even more than discovering a successful commercial product, I and my colleagues have been awed and gratified that our efforts produced a world class drug that can help sick people. More than once, strangers, acquaintances, and friends who benefited from taking Zoloft have come up and thanked me personally for my part in the discovery of this antidepressant.

My role in the discovery of Zoloft depended on many factors coming together. Personal prerequisites include a solid technical background, a willingness to learn and adapt, a prepared mind, and perseverance. Having congenial colleagues and understanding bosses is important. A key factor in all drug discovery efforts is still luck! I was lucky to have been part of the golden era of the pharmaceutical industry, which gave me a unique opportunity for creative thinking and doing scientific research in technical areas outside of my chemistry training. But maybe the most critical factor for me is that many years ago Reed College offered me a scholarship to come here—enabling me a start towards a scientific career, and a return today to receive the Vollum Award!

Thank you!