James White was born in Bristol, England, and received his early education in India and in Tiverton, Devon. After National Services as a Pilot Officer in the Royal Air Force, he pursued higher education within Queen's College at the University of Cambridge and graduated from there with a B.A. degree in Natural Sciences in 1959. Professor White then left England for graduate study a the University of British Columbia and soon thereafter received an M.S. degree for research work conducted in the laboratory of Raymond Bonnett. In 1961, he moved to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to continue his studies with the renowned organic chemist, George Büchu, After graduating from MIT in 1965 with a Ph.D. degree, he took up his first academic appointment as an Instructor at Harvard University and progressed through the ranks there to the level of Associate Professor. In 1971, he moved west to his present location in Corvallis to join the Chemistry faculty at Oregon State University where he is currently a Distinguished Professor Emeritus.
Professor White’s research has emphasized the development of new strategies for the synthesis of complex molecules, mainly natural products, and this has led to numerous achievements in the fields of terpene, alkaloid, and macrolide synthesis. He has been a pioneer in the use of photochemistry in synthesis, and he has also been successful in demonstrating that biogenetic pathways to natural products can be simulated in the laboratory with a high degree of precision. More recently, his interests have turned towards natural products from the marine environment, where opportunities for exploring new structural classes are extensive. Professor White’s work in this area, which began during a sabbatical as a Guggenheim Fellow in 1990, has yielded notable successes, including syntheses of antitumor agents, immunosuppressants, antibiotics, analgesics, and other biologically active substances of value as leads into clinically important pharmaceuticals. A large proportion of his former Ph.D. students and post-doctoral associates are now engaged in research and development with pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. and abroad, while a smaller number have launched their own independent academic careers.
A prolific author with more than 230 publications to his name, Professor White has served on the editorial boards of several important international journals, including Organic Syntheses and Organic Reactions. He was an Associate Editor for the Journal of the American Chemical Society from 1989 until1994 and served as U.S. Editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry periodical Chemical Communications from 1996 until 2004. He has been the recipient of numerous national and international awards including the Centenary Medal of the Royal Society of Chemistry (U.K.) (1999), the American Chemical Society Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award (2003), the Wyeth-Ayerst Research Award of Columbia University (2000), the Medical Research Foundation of Oregon Discovery Award (2004), and the 2006 Oregon Outstanding Scientist Award of the Oregon Academy of Sciences. In 1995, he was awarded an honorary Sc.D. degree from his alma mater, the University of Cambridge.