John N. Abelson

University Names John Abelson Recipient of its Highest Alumni Award

Distinguished molecular biologist John N. Abelson received the Washington State University Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award-the University’s highest honor for alumni-on October 22, 2004. Presentation of the award took place on campus in Pullman at the Board of Regents meeting on October 22.

Dr. Abelson, a 1960 WSU physics graduate, is a pioneer in determining how the information in DNA is translated into the language of proteins and is co-founder of the company that developed one of the first three drugs that slashed the death rate among AIDS patients in the mid 1990s.

After receiving his WSU degree, Dr. Abelson earned a doctorate in biophysics at Johns Hopkins University in 1965. He completed postdoctoral studies in biochemistry at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, England, prior to accepting his first faculty post at the University of California, San Diego in 1968.

In 1982, Dr. Abelson joined the faculty at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. He chaired Caltech’s Division of Biology and became the George Beadle Professor of Biology in 1991. Retired since 2002 and now living in San Francisco, he is Beadle emeritus professor at Caltech.

Dr. Abelson and several colleagues founded the non-profit research organization, Agouron Institute, in 1978. Six years later, they entered the business world by creating Agouron Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a small San Diego firm that used a new idea, rational drug design, to develop Viracept, the leading drug used for controlling HIV infections. The company, now owned by Warner Lambert, successfully brought the drug to market and also developed cancer and common cold drugs. Today Dr. Abelson serves as president of the institute, now an endowed charitable foundation.

Dr. Abelson was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in 1985. He received the 1993 Washington State University Distinguished Alumnus Award from the College of Sciences and the WSU Alumni Achievement Award in 1995. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1985 and to the American Philosophical Society in 2001. He delivered the Sinsheimer Distinguished Lecture in Biology at University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2001. He is a past president of the RNA Society.

Dr. Abelson’s uncle, Philip Abelson, who was longtime editor of Science magazine and recipient of the President’s National Medal of Science, and aunt, Neva Martin Abelson, who was co-developer of the Rh-factor blood test, were the first and 23rd respective recipients of the WSU Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award. Abelson Hall is named for them. His grandparents homesteaded in Pullman and built their first home where the University’s Fulmer Hall now stands. His father, Harold Abelson, and brother, LeRoy Abelson, civil engineers, are also WSU graduates. His sister, Dorothy Wibbenmeyer, spent one year at WSU and lives in Eugene, Oregon where she works as a therapist.

In 2000, John Abelson and his wife, geneticist Christine Guthrie, American Cancer Society professor at the University of California, San Francisco and National Academy of Sciences member, created the Abelson Family Lecture at WSU in honor of his extended family. In the late 1990s Dr. Abelson served WSU by helping the College of Sciences develop the reorganization plans that created the Schools of Molecular Biosciences and Biological Sciences.

Established in 1962, the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus/a Award honors alumni “who shall have made a truly distinguished contribution to society, or who, through personal achievement, shall have brought distinction to Washington State University.” Previous honorees in addition to the Abelsons include broadcaster Edward R. Murrow; nationally-known sociologists William Julius Wilson and James E. Blackwell; Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft; and Sherman Alexie, Native American poet, author, and film director.