Remembering Emeritus Professor Roberts A. Smith

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We are sad to report that emeritus Professor Roberts (Bob) Smith passed away peacefully at the age of 89 on January 25, 2018 following a brief illness.

Please help us support the Roberts A. Smith Graduate Award for the Study of Biochemistry for undergraduate and graduate student research fellowships.

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Professor Smith was one of the original group of biochemistry faculty in what was then the Department of Chemistry at UCLA. Bob was born in Vancouver, Canada on December 22, 1928 and received his undergraduate and master’s degrees in microbiology from the University of British Columbia in 1952 and 1953. He then came to the United States to join the Biochemistry PhD program at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, working with the renowned biochemist Irwin C. Gunsalus. He received his doctorate in 1957, and then stayed on at Illinois a year as an instructor before joining the UCLA faculty in 1958 as an assistant professor. He rose quickly through the ranks at UCLA, becoming a full professor in 1968. During the 1963-64 academic year, he held a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship at Cambridge University in England. He retired from the faculty in 1987 but kept active in departmental activities.

His long-term office mate emeritus Professor Harold Martinson remembered Bob especially for his wonderful mentorship over the years – his generous sharing of his laboratory space and facilities, his scientific influence, and his friendship. “Among the real high points of Divisional life, before Bob cast his lot full time with industry, were the frequent Divisional get-togethers at his home in Santa Monica” said Martinson. “I enjoyed going through the house with Bob and looking at all of his beautiful wood work.”

At UCLA, Bob quickly established a vigorous research program in biochemistry that focused on cancer biology and the biological uses of phosphorous-nitrogen linkages. In 1960 Bob was asked to join the Board of Directors of ICN Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which soon after became a public company on the New York Stock Exchange. In this role Bob was instrumental in the development of the anti-viral drug ribavirin, a medication now on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. He continued to serve as chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of ICN Pharmaceuticals as well as Director and President of Viratek, one of the earliest biotechnology companies. He published more than 85 papers in his career and directed the PhD theses of 22 students. Bob was an engaging teacher and beloved colleague in the department.

In 2008, Bob was inducted into the Comox Valley Walk of Achievement in British Columbia for his work in drug discovery. Bob’s family moved to the Comox Valley in 1937 where he went to the local Courtenay Elementary and High Schools. He was cited for helping to save thousands of lives over the years by pioneering the anti-viral field with the discovery of the broad spectrum nucleoside analog ribavirin now used to treat respiratory syncytial virus, hepatitis C, and viral hemorrhagic fever.  Bob’s work in this area led him to visit China in the 1990s where he stayed at Mao Tse-tung’s summer home while he helped initiate treatments for hemorrhagic fever. This disease had a mortality of about 40% and those that survived ended up with severe kidney disease. The use of ribavirin reduced the mortality rate to about 5% and patients treated no longer had kidney impairments.

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Bob Smith in one of his favorite places in the world, the garden he and Adela created together.

Bob and his wife Adela celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary last August. Their children include Roberts H. A., James A. D., Eric J. M. and Richard I. F., daughters-in-law Amy, Rebecca and Loretta, grandchildren Michael (wife Amy), Nicolas (wife Elizabeth), Darren, Dylan, James, Sydney, Christopher (wife Julie), Laura, Amy, Richard and Jacqueline, and great-grandchildren Téo, Charlotte and Freya.

After retirement, Bob and Adela split their time between their homes in Santa Monica, California and Courtenay on Vancouver Island, British Columbia where they channeled their energies into their lifelong passon for gardens building a world-class rhododendron garden of their own. Bob passed away in Santa Monica.

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Charles West, Dr. Atsuko Fujimoto, Bob Smith, Adela Smith, and Dr. Audrey Fowler at the 2012 Seaborg Medal Dinner.

In 2009, the Roberts A. Smith Graduate Award for the Study of Biochemistry was established with a generous endowment from funds contributed both by Professor Smith and his wife Adela and in his honor by his former student Atsuko Fujimoto and her husband Akira Fujimoto. Dr. Fujimoto joined his laboratory shortly after he arrived at UCLA and remembered him as a young and energetic professor. She was his first graduate student and one of the very first women to get a PhD in biochemistry in the department. “I had some moments of doubt in pursuing my PhD but Bob was always supportive and convinced me I could do it” wrote Dr. Fujimoto who was encouraged by Bob to pursue a career in medicine leading her to become the Chief of the Genetics Division of the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. “Whatever he told me to do, I succeeded. Bob played a major role throughout my life as a colleague and a good friend – we will miss him deeply.”

The news of Bob’s passing was reported on the UCLA Newsroom website and in the Daily Bruin.

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The Smith family and friends at the memorial celebration for Bob at the UCLA Faculty Center on February 28, 2018.

Adela requests that instead of flowers, donations can be made by those who wish to the Roberts A. Smith Graduate Award for the Study of Biochemistry fund. All donations will be matched dollar for dollar by the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Contributions can either be made using the online giving website or, by check, following the instructions below.

To contribute by check, please make a check payable to: “The UCLA Foundation” and include on the memo line “Roberts A. Smith Graduate Student Award Fund – #81707E”.

Please mail the check to:

Chair’s Office
UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry
607 Charles E. Young Dr., East
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1569

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