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.