James M. Sprague, Ph.D.


James M. Sprague received his AB at Franklin College in 1930 and his PhD at the University of Wisconsin, Madison with Homer Adkins in 1934, studying the hydrogenation and hydrogenolysis of diketones. He then did postdoctoral work at Yale, and started at Sharpe and Dohme in 1937, and then continued at Merck Sharpe and Dohme when the two companies merged in 1953. Sprague worked extensively in the area of heterocyclic compounds, and was responsible for 27 United States patents and several foreign patents for the Merck Co., Inc. He made important discoveries in the area of sulfa drugs, which initially became important as the first effective antimicrobial drugs, but later found broader uses. Particularly important was the development of a new class of drugs, the thiazide diuretics. One of these, the drug Diuril®, dramatically altered the treatment of congestive heart failure and high blood pressure. Other products he helped develop are Elavil®, an antidepressant, and Benemid®, a treatment for gout. Sprague died in 2000 at the age of 91.

The Merck Lectureship in honor of Sprague started in 1959 at the University of Wisconsin. The first speaker was George Wittig, who later won the Nobel prize, and subsequently the Lectureship was awarded to three other chemists (Donald J. Cram, Derek H. Barton and Robert Grubbs) who went on to win Nobel Prizes in chemistry.