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In Memoriam: William Joseph Wiswesser (1914-1989)

(Chemical Information Bulletin vol. 42, No. 1, Spring 1990)


A legend among us, Bill (WJW) Wiswesser, died on December 16, 1989, after a siege of coronary problems. For the past thirty years Bill has had an influence on everyone working in the field of chemical structure information retrieval. He was the guru of concise storage and retrieval of chemical structures. Best known for the WLN - the Chemical Line Formula Notation that bears his name, Bill pioneered mathematical, physical and chemical methods of punchcard and computer store representation of interatomic relationships. He published and presented well over 100 papers bridging the ACS Divisions of Chemical Information, Chemical History, Chemical Education, and Chemical Health and Safety. His recognitions include:

  • Department of the Army Award of Merit - the highest U.S. Army honor that can be awarded to a civilian
  • Doctor of Science, Lehigh University - honorary degree for an outstanding alumnus
  • Skolnik Award - the Division of Chemical Information, American Chemical Society, recognition for contributions to chemical information
  • Patterson Award - the Dayton Chapter, American Chemical Society, award for contributions to chemical information
  • Lehigh University Wiswesser Collection - repository of scientific papers describing the philosophy and applications of the Wiswesser Line Notation
  • Chemical Notation Association - a scientific organization dedicated to further development of chemical notation systems, comprised of, at one time, over 200 members representing over 80 international organizations that had adopted chemical notations to manage their respective chemical structure files
  • 50-year membership, American Chemical Society

The WLN, once the most frequently used term in the annual index of papers published in the Journal of Chemical Documentation, required full-day chemical notation symposia at national and international meetings. The impact of Bill's brain-child affected services and publications, to name a few: ISI's Chemical Structure Index; Chemical Abstracts Service's Parent Compound Handbook; CRC's Atlas of Infrared Data, Pesticides Index; Merck Index; and the Aldrich Chemical Catalog.

Who can forget the lively floor debates of the 60's at Division of Chemical Information meetings when the Pennsylvania Dutchman would challenge the prevailing thoughts of storing chemical structure information? Who can forget the provocative Chemical World Index Key, Bill's periodical publication for the Reading Chemist's Club? For those in the Chemical Notation Association, who can forget the endless hours of labor and love sessions arguing over the manual rules - the wordings, and the examples? Bill left a legacy that cannot be replaced. We have lost a mentor and a friend.

Alan Gelberg