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In memoriam: Regents Professor George 'Bob' Pettit

ASU mourns the loss of renowned anti-cancer pioneer and friend


Throughout his career George “Bob” Pettit was the recipient of numerous awards, and he published over 800 scientific papers, books and book chapters. His work has been cited more than 31,000 times by other researchers, attesting to Pettit’s productivity and stature.

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September 24, 2021

It is with sadness that the ASU School of Molecular Sciences announces the death of Regents Professor George “Bob” Pettit, who died on Tuesday, Sept. 21.

Pettit was a giant in the field of natural products and anti-cancer research, holding nearly 70 patents on anti-cancer compounds. During his 55-year career at Arizona State University, Pettit founded and directed the Cancer Research Institute and was the Dalton Professor of Cancer Research and Medicinal Chemistry.

Longtime colleague and friend Emeritus Professor Morton Munk, who knew Pettit for 70 years, recalled, “Bob established himself as a pioneer and a major presence in the field of natural products chemistry. He was deeply involved and successful in the discovery and development of cancer chemotherapy agents.”

Pettit’s work lives on in the over 800 scientific papers, books and book chapters he published. His work has been cited more than 31,000 times by other researchers, attesting to Pettit’s productivity and stature.

Throughout his career, Pettit was the recipient of numerous awards, including the State of Arizona Governor’s Excellence Award, the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists, the Research Achievement Award by the American Society of Pharmacognosy and the Ernest Guenther Award in the Chemistry of Natural Products.

Pettit was admired and respected by scientists around the world, honored by the International Cancer Advocacy Network, the American Society of Pharmacognosy and Washington State University, his alma mater. A special edition of the Journal of Natural Products is dedicated to Pettit, and the French journal Médicine Sciences paid tribute to him. Pettit’s achievements earned him the designation of Outstanding Investigator by the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute.

“As the long-term editor of the Journal of Natural Products, I had the privilege of handling dozens of manuscripts submitted by the late Bob Pettit and his associates,” said A. Douglas Kinghorn, professor and Jack L. Beal Chair in the College of Pharmacy at Ohio State University. “Each research article was highly significant in its technical content and written meticulously, representing a model for how to prepare a manuscript to younger scientists. For about a decade, Bob very graciously served on the External Advisory Committee of our multi-institutional program project funded by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, and was always available to provide sage and pertinent advice. He will be very greatly missed by the members of our natural products community.”

Gordon Cragg, former NCI chief of the Natural Products Branch of the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute recalled, “I regard Bob as one of the most outstanding and resourceful scientists I have known, and I am forever grateful to him for the indispensable role he played in guiding my professional career in anticancer drug discovery. He will long be remembered for his devotion and commitment to improving the treatment and quality of life of cancer patients worldwide, and to this end he achieved worldwide recognition in discovering multiple naturally derived antitumor active compounds, several of which lead to the development of clinically approved anticancer agents. He was truly an inspiration to all who met him!"

Colleagues at ASU remember Pettit for his kindness and for never being too busy to chat in the hallway or offer supportive words. He was an inspiration to his students and colleagues alike.

Former School of Molecular Sciences Director Ian Gould noted, “Bob was a most talented and knowledgeable organic chemist; serving on graduate student committees with him was a privilege. Bob had a wonderfully warm personality and always had time to chat about science. He was a true gentleman, and he will be sorely missed.”

Pettit’s service to the school, to the university and to chemistry will rarely be equaled, Gould said. His accomplishments, kindness and generosity of spirit will continue to be an inspiration for future generations.

To honor Pettit’s accomplishments and memory, the School of Molecular Sciences has established the George “Bob” Pettit Fellowship Fund to create an endowed fellowship to support graduate students studying medicinal chemistry. More information is available at https://sms.asu.edu/pettit.

WATCH: Ian Gould and Morton Munk reflect on Pettit's career on the occassion of his retirement one year ago

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