GEORGE LEVITT:

FATHER OF NON-TOXIC HERBICIDES


The highest award bestowed by the President of the United States for extraordinary achievements in technology is the National Medal of Technology. Each year, only a handful of people win the award. One winner in 1993 was George Levitt, Ph.D. '57. A retired DuPont agricultural research chemist, Levitt discovered a family of herbicides known as "sulphonylureas," or simply "SUs." Applied at one hundreth the rate of other herbides, SUs are so environmentally friendly they are less toxic than table salt. "They are safe for both humans and animals because they work on enzymes that only exists on plants," explains Levitt, who received the medal on Sept. 30 from President Clinton at a White House luncheon. Winning the medal, he says, "is kind of like having 20 cherries on top of my sundae . . . certainly one of the highest points of my career." A native of Newburgh, NY, George served in the U.S. Navy, including in combat during World War II. During his 30 years with DuPont, he received just about every award and even had a building, "Levitt Laboratory," named after him. He also served as the first president of the Ronald McDonald House in Wilmington, DE, where he lives. George's discovery was indeed revolutionary--SUs are becoming the herbicide of choice worldwide, producing $650 million a year for DuPont. "MSU directly helped me," he notes. "(MSU advisor) Harold Hart's teaching was the kind that made the student think, and I carried that into my career. He was inspiring. You can say he had a great impact on me." Levitt also benefitted from working for the Horticulture Dept. one summer. "There was a group of people, including Sylvan Wittwer (director emeritus of MSU's Experiment Station), who were working with organic chemistry applied to agriculture," he recalls. "That's when I first learned about the field. When I graduated, I got several job offers, including the one from DuPont!"

photo credit: Levitt (left) receives the highest technology award bestowed in the country from President Clinton at a White House ceremony in September.