A flip of a coin by Edward C. Taylor Jr. when he was a college freshman directed him to a chemistry course, placing him on the path that led to the development of a breakthrough drug in the fight against lung cancer.
Taylor, an award-winning Princeton University chemist, died last month in St. Paul at 94.
Born in Springfield, Mass., he joined his children, Ned Taylor and Susan Spielman, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the Twin Cities in 2014 with his wife of 68 years, Ginnie, who died in August of that year.
At Princeton, Taylor taught generations of students. His work led to the development of Alimta as a treatment for pleural mesothelioma, a lung cancer often caused by exposure to asbestos. Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2004, the drug has since been approved to fight other cancers.
The drug’s development began in 1946 when Taylor was a graduate student at Cornell University. He learned that a compound in spinach and liver, now known as folic acid, had a chemical structure previously seen only in butterfly wing pigments. He focused his research on how to transform folic acid from a growth-promoting compound to a growth-inhibitor that could kill cancer cells.
At a symposium in his honor two years ago at Princeton, Taylor said he didn’t start out trying to find a cancer drug, according to an article published by the university.
“I was just exploring the chemistry of these beastly chemical compounds with a two-ring structure that had been found in the wing pigments of butterflies,” he said. “I admit it’s nice, but anybody who knows how these things are done when one accomplishes something like Alimta realizes that a lot of people contributed in all sorts of ways.”
Beginning in 1984, Taylor collaborated with Joe Shih, a scientist at Eli Lilly. After Taylor’s death, Shih told a Princeton reporter that Taylor held himself to the “highest standard of integrity” and built a “trustworthy atmosphere among all the collaborators” as well as mentoring younger colleagues and maintaining ebullient enthusiasm.
Royalties from the U.S. patent for Alimta helped construct the Frick Chemistry Building, which opened in 2010 on Princeton’s New Jersey campus.
Taylor was a world leader in heterocyclic chemistry. He received Fulbright, Guggenheim, and Alexander Von Humboldt awards, the Thomas Alva Edison Award for Invention, the National Academy of Sciences Award for Chemistry in Service to Society, the Heroes of Chemistry award and many others.
Taylor spent the final three years of life in St. Paul, living near the Upper Landing development on the Mississippi River. His son said his father walked everywhere and worked out three times a week with a trainer at the fitness center nearby.
The retired scientist also was a regular at restaurants nearby on West Seventh Street and knew staff members by their names.
His son echoed what has been said elsewhere about Taylor — that he was full of joy about working and being alive.
“He felt like he was born to be a chemist,” Ned Taylor said of his father.
Taylor wasn’t headed in that direction as a freshman at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y. He wanted to be a writer, but he had to fulfill a science requirement, his son said, so he flipped a coin to decide between biology and chemistry. Within two years, Taylor had taken every chemistry course at Hamilton, so he transferred to Cornell.
During his St. Paul years, Taylor stayed connected to chemistry through its native tongue: German. He studied at the Germanic-American Institute in St. Paul and the Concordia Language Villages.
Taylor died at home Nov. 22. Services were held.