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University of Missouri

A Noble Chemist

MU alumnus Billy Vineyard, whose research won the Nobel Prize, dies.

Billy Vineyard

Billy Vineyard was part of the three-man team whose research won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2001. From left, team leader William Knowles, Jerry Sabacky and Vineyard pose in their lab at Monsanto. Photo courtesy of Monsanto.

If Billy Vineyard had signed with the St. Louis Cardinals when he tried out in the early 1950s, he probably wouldn’t have been part of the three-man team whose research won the 2001 Nobel Prize in chemistry. A U.S. Army veteran, Vineyard, PhD ’59, died in Creve Coeur, Missouri, March 16, 2014, at 82.

Born Sept. 7, 1931, in Clarkton, Missouri, Vineyard joined Monsanto as an organic chemist after graduating from Mizzou. In the late 1960s, working alongside William Knowles and Jerry Sabacky, Vineyard helped invent asymmetric hydrogenation, a chemical process that cheaply and safely separates the toxic part of a molecule from the beneficial part. The breakthrough led to the commercial production of the drug L-DOPA, which is used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Today, the procedure is used in the creation of about half of all pharmaceuticals.

In 1981, the trio received an award from Monsanto for their discovery, and in 1985, Vineyard became a Monsanto Fellow, continuing his research in sulfur, boron and bio-organic chemistry. He was also instrumental in designing the technology used to commercially produce the artificial sweetener aspartame.

Vineyard retired from Monsanto in 1993.

On Oct. 10, 2001, Knowles, the team’s leader, received a phone call saying he had received the Nobel Prize. “He called me at 5 o’clock in the morning and said, ‘We won the Nobel Prize,’ ” Vineyard said in a 2001 interview with Chemical & Engineering News. Knowles, who received more than $200,000 in prize money, shared his cash award with Sabacky and Vineyard.

Even though the recognition came more than 30 years after the initial finding, Vineyard told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2001, “We knew back then that it was a pioneering discovery.”