Joseph H. Burckhalter, Ph.D.

 

Joseph H. Burckhalter was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1912. He earned a B.S. in chemistry from the University of South Carolina in 1934 and an M.S. in organic chemistry from the University of Illinois, Urbana, in 1938. In 1942, he received his doctorate in medicinal chemistry at the University of Michigan, where he had been a graduate student of the legendary Frederick Blicke.

Upon earning his doctorate, Burckhalter went to work for Parke Davis & Co. in Detroit, MI. From the pain-relieving drug now Tylenol, he derived Camoquin, a curative agent for the treatment of malaria. Subsequently, Burckhalter went to the University of Kansas College of Pharmacy, where he initiated the school's doctoral program in medicinal chemistry. He also served at the National Defense Medical Center in Taiwan, and as a Fulbright professor in Germany. In 1960, Burckhalter moved to the University of Michigan, where he took over the department chairmanship from his former mentor, Frederick Blicke. He chaired Michigan's program until Albert B. Prescott Professor Emeritus of Medicinal Chemistry Leroy Townsend was recruited, at which point Burckhalter turned over the reins. Burckhalter, who was a professor of medicinal chemistry at the College of Pharmacy from 1960-82, had a distinguished career in biomedical research as a scientist, teacher and administrator dedicated to utilizing medicinal chemistry for the discovery of new drugs, particularly those to treat cancer and infectious diseases. Although Burckhalter retired from the University of Michigan in 1982 at age 70, he continued to be active in scientific research for a number of years. He served as a research professor of medicinal chemistry at the Medical Research Institute, Florida Institute of Technology, where he continued an active interest in drug development in the areas of cancer and virus diseases such as AIDS. He was a recipient of the American Innovator Award from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Distinguished Alumni Award at the Universities of South Carolina and Illinois, and the Order of the Palmetto, given by the governor of South Carolina. He is listed in "Who's Who in Medicine and Healthcare."

Among his many achievements, Burckhalter was largely responsible for building the interdepartmental graduate programs in medicinal chemistry at both the University of Kansas and the University of Michigan. In collaboration with Robert Seiwald, he made an essential contribution to the identification of antigens through the synthesis of fluorescein isothiocyanate, better known as FITC. This provided the first practical and first patented antibody labeling agent, and the stable, yellow-green-fluorescent compound has become widely used for rapid, accurate, and economic diagnosis of infectious diseases. FITC has played an important role in identifying the cause of AIDS and can be used to distinguish between different strains of streptococci. It has proved infallible in tests for syphilis. FITC and red RITC (rhodamine isothiocyanate) are used together to quickly diagnose leukemia and lymphoma. FITC also paved the way for the development of other labeling procedures, such as radioimmunoassay and enzyme-linked immosorbent assay (ELISA). Although he passed away in 2004, Burckhalter continues to contribute to drug discovery. The University of Kansas high-throughput screening laboratory maintains a very valuable collection of more than 15,000 unique natural compounds, including a set of information rich molecules developed years ago through the intuition and experience of world-class medicinal chemist Joseph Burckhalter.