Heinz Gschwend

1936 – 2019

Heinz Gschwend

Heinz was a superb synthetic chemist and an extraordinary drug hunter by applying rationale, skills and experience paired with instinct and pragmatism. Despite his capabilities, he remained humble, used an inclusive style as leader, and was a great coach and mentor to many who were lucky crossing his path.

He was born in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland, in the town of Brienz. He valued and bonded to this spectacular part of the Swiss Alps his whole life and kept connections with family and friends throughout his life. Heinz studied chemistry at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH) and joined the group of Albert Eschenmoser for his PhD thesis, for which ETH awarded him with the coveted Silver Medal for excellence. During this time and the following postdoctoral stay at Harvard University in the group of R.B. Woodward, he instrumentally contributed to the total synthesis of vitamin B12, by many considered to be the Mount Everest of total synthesis.

He remained on the East Coast of the United States together with his wife Katharina Gschwend-Steen and joined 1967 Ciba Pharmaceutical in Summit NJ, where he refined his medicinal chemistry and drug discovery skills, taking positions with increasing amount of responsibilities, finally heading drug discovery at the site. It was during this time Heinz could realize every medicinal chemists dream to be instrumentally involved in the discovery of novel drug molecules that will become successful therapeutics. These efforts resulted in the marketed drugs Benazepril, an ACE-inhibitor to lower blood pressure, and Letrozole, an aromatase inhibitor to treat hormone-responsive breast cancer.

In 1989, he moved to Basel, Switzerland, to head the Central Research Laboratories in addition to take responsibility for the two subsidiaries in Takarazuka, Japan, and Macclesfield, UK. These institutes ran traditionally a highly diverse research portfolio, including polymer chemistry, agrochemicals, dyes, drug discovery, synthetic methodologies, and material science. Heinz was tasked to reorganize this fragmented portfolio and with his leadership, the focus was reoriented to three major topics with pharmaceutical applications in mind: material sciences, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids. The way he approached this difficult task was unique during these times: rather than relying on external consultants or his own opinion, he chose an inclusive approach and encouraged scientist internally to provide input and proposals, which formed the basis for the new scientific focus. The antisense oligonucleotide projects, in collaboration with ISIS Pharmaceuticals (now Ionis) and internal biology, resulted in the identification of novel chemical matter that is still used nowadays and reflects a benchmark in the field of modified oligonucleotides.

Heinz moved back to the US and joined Arris Pharmaceuticals, an emerging Bay Area biotech company to take on multiple senior roles, including the role as Executive Vice President of Research and Preclinical Development. In 1998, he became an independent consultant and besides advising many biotech companies with his synthetic and drug discovery experience, he supported multiple Venture firms with his knowledge.

While Heinz was highly successful in drug discovery, he never lost his passion for synthetic chemistry. Over decades, he built and assembled a collection of useful and important reactions. Whenever synthetic problems were up for discussion, he would often remember the specifics for a key transformation and be able to pull it out from his respectable stack of index cards. This passion and unique capability led to his appointment to the Editorial Board of ‘Organic Reactions’ from 1982 to 1989, a role he took very seriously and was greatly proud of. Heinz was a humble giant in the world of chemistry.

In retirement, Heinz enjoyed the simple pleasures of tending to his fruit trees, chopping wood, playing tennis, hiking by the Sonoma Coast and enjoying the local wineries. He was a devoted father, grandfather and attentive family man. Musical aptitude was apparent for many generations in Heinz’s family and he expertly played classical pieces on the piano right up to his time of passing.

Heinz passed away on June 16, 2019 with his wife, Cynthia, at his side. He is survived by his brother Martin Gschwend, Switzerland, his wife, Cynthia Healy of Santa Rosa, California, sons Dominik of Rockledge, Florida, Daniel of Windham, New Hampshire, Gregory of New York, N.Y., Connery of Georgetown, Washington D.C. and three grandchildren, Kyle, Kaelin and Andrew.