During his 40-year career at Wayne State University in Detroit, Johnson's work took a number of twists but maintained a common theme. "Throughout my career," he said, "I've tried to relate chemistry to biology, to do things of interest to the pharmaceutical industry."
He began with studying sulfur-based compounds and how he could use them to tailor-make starting materials and methods to build biologically active compounds. That was more than 200 research papers, seven books and some 200 doctorate and post-doctorate students ago.
In the last decade, said Johnson, researchers have learned that sugar molecules -- in addition to providing energy for humans and other organisms, as does glucose, and structural support, as does cellulose -- serve as "ID tags" on the surface of cells. Hormones use them to identify their target tissue, for example. But so do infectious organisms, like viruses.
"So we began to look at groups of molecules that would mimic the sugars in hopes they might complex with the parasite, virus or bacterium -- and by 'complexing' with it would prevent it from attacking the host cell," said Johnson. "And we tried to make those molecules using unusual chemistry." For instance, he and his group would assemble a complex sugar unit using bacterial enzymes and simple organic starting materials, he added.
Growing up in the small town of Orange, Va., "the closest thing we had to a scientist was our local pharmacist. That's largely why I went to pharmacy school," said Johnson. "But I soon found the thing that was very interesting to me was a chemistry course I took. I knew then what I really wanted to do was become a chemist, one who could work in the pharmaceutical field."
Johnson received his undergraduate degree from the Medical College of Virginia in 1958 and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, Urbana, in 1962. He became distinguished professor emeritus at Wayne State in January 2002 and moved with his wife Mary to Hartfield in June. He is a member of the ACS divisions of organic and medicinal chemistry.
The ACS Board of Directors established the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award in 1984 to recognize and encourage excellence among organic chemists including Senior Scholars, those over age 50. Cope himself was a celebrated organic chemist and former chairman of ACS. The award consists of a $5,000 prize and an unrestricted research grant of $40,000.