From: Chemical and Engineering News, 2008, 86 (39), 53-54.
Born in Timberville, Va., May earned an undergraduate degree from Bridgewater College in 1935 and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Virginia in 1939.
After a short stint at National Oil Products, May joined the National Institutes of Health as an associate chemist in 1941. At NIH he served as a senior chemist from 1947 to 1953. While working in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps., from 1953 to 1977, he was scientist director and then chief of the section on medicinal chemistry.
When May retired in 1977, he joined the department of pharmacology and toxicology of the Medical College of Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University as an adjunct professor and maintained an active role at the university until shortly before his death.
Early in his career, May focused on antimalarials research, which led to a number of effective drugs. After World War II, he focused on analgesics, introducing the 6,7-benzomorphans and the 5-phenylmorphans as analgesics and research tools. He discovered phenazocine, an opioid analgesic drug, and levomethadyl acetate, which had some success as a replacement for methadone as a maintenance drug in the treatment of opioid addiction. His extensive structure-activity studies emphasized the importance of stereochemistry on drug action and played an important role in the discovery of opioid receptors and the endogenous opioid system. More recently, May made important contributions to the fields of cannabinoids and nicotine.
He served as a board member and a consultant for the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Problems of Drug Dependence, a consultant to the United Nations Narcotics Laboratory, in Vienna, Austria, and a member of the World Health Organization Expert Advisory Panel on Addiction-Producing Drugs. He had been assistant editor of the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry and served on the editorial boards of Medicinal Chemistry Research and Medicinal Research Reviews.
May authored or coauthored 198 research papers, 10 review articles, and seven book chapters. He coedited one book and held seven patents. He received numerous awards, including the Nathan B. Eddy Memorial Award and three awards from ACS: the Hillebrand Prize of the Chemical Society of Washington, the Smissman Bristol-Myers Squibb Award of the Medicinal Chemistry Division, and the Alfred Burger Award in Medicinal Chemistry, a national award. He was a member of ACS, joining in 1940.