This prize is named after eminent chemist and biochemist Jeremy Knowles, OBE.
Born in Rugby in 1935, Knowles studied first at Magdalen College School and then Balliol College, Oxford, where he developed an interest in kinetics and gained a first class degree in 1959. Following a PhD on aromatic substitution, he completed a two year postdoctoral fellowship at CalTech, where he developed an interest in specificity and kinetics of the enzyme alpha-chymotrypsin. He formed the Enzyme Group at Oxford in the 1970s before moving to America to become Professor of Chemistry at Harvard.
Knowles' enzymatic research at Harvard was fundamental for understanding enzyme function in illnesses, knowledge still use in current drug discovery. Key areas of his work included: studying free-energy profiles of enzymes, defining the efficiency function (Ef) of enzymes in metabolic pathways, performing mutagenesis experiments to characterise the workings of triosephosphate isomerase, deducing inhibitor mechanisms from kinetic data without structural knowledge of the key enzyme, and developing a method to directly examine the mechanism of phosphor group transfer using isotopically labelled chiral phosphate monoesters and so determine the stereochemistry of the reaction.
In 1991, Knowles stopped his research to fully focus on his new role as Harvard's Dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He arrived at a time of "budgetary crisis" but implemented successful measures to reduce Harvard's deficit and launch a fundraising campaign. He was forward-thinking and planned investment in promising areas for discovery and application, such as genomics, computation, neuroscience and evolution, alongside improving opportunities for undergraduates to study languages. In recognition of his services to the university they awarded him the Harvard Medal in 2002.
Following an independent review of the Royal Society of Chemistry's recognition programmes, this prize evolved in 2020 to recognise mid-career scientists working at the interface of chemistry and the life sciences.
The prize was established through a bequest from Adrien Albert. In 2021, the purposes of this Trust were amended, and remaining monies were combined with other generous bequests and donations to become part of the RSC Recognition Fund.