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William H. Orme-Johnson

William H. Orme-Johnson


MIT Professor Emeritus of Chemistry William H. Orme-Johnson, heralded for his four decades of contributions in the field of inorganic biochemistry, died Jan. 1 after a long illness. He was 68.

“Bill (called by all, O.J.) was a giant in the field of bioinorganic chemistry,” said JoAnne Stubbe, Novartis Professor of Chemistry and professor of biology. “Contributions that his lab made in the mid ’70s set the stage for many of the experiments carried out by the bio-inorganic community today.”

A native of El Paso, Texas, Orme-Johnson received his BS and PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. He was a member of the biochemistry faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison for 15 years.

In 1980, Orme-Johnson joined the MIT faculty in the then-relatively new research area of biological chemistry; he was an MIT professor of chemistry for the next 18 years. Much lauded for his research, Orme-Johnson co-authored 69 papers in professional journals and held a patent on a scientific procedure.

“Orme-Johnson was one of the first groups to apply rapid freeze quench methods. … He was the first lab to apply ESEEM (electron spin echo envelope modulation) spectroscopic methods to map out the active site of steroid cytochrome P450 systems using deuterated steroid substrates,” Stubbe said. “He was one of the first to realize that complex bio-inorganic cofactors were assembled by complex biosynthetic pathways.”

In 2002, the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry published a special issue dedicated to Orme-Johnson in recognition of his contributions. The articles were written by Orme-Johnson’s former students and collaborators and included an appreciation written by Jack Peisach, professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

For nine years, Orme-Johnson served as a housemaster at Bexley Hall, and he was active in the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, a non-denominational, independent society that works for a positive relationship between science and religion.

“Bill was an extraordinary scientist, a wonderful friend and colleague and a great housemaster to the students in Bexley Hall,” said John M. Essigmann, MIT professor of toxicology and chemistry.

In 1992, Orme-Johnson taught an MIT Independent Activities Period class, “Applied Chili Chemistry,” that was so enthusiastically received that a second section was formed.

Orme-Johnson is survived by his wife, Carol, a former MIT assistant dean; three daughters, Ruth Orme-Johnson and McGhee Orme-Johnson and Dolly Orme-Johnson; and brother and sister-in-law David and Rhoda Orme-Johnson.