Professor Leonard received his B.S. from Lehigh in 1937, a B.Sc. from Oxford in 1940, a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1942, and a D.Sc. from the University of Oxford in 1983. He has also received three honorary doctoral degrees.
Internationally acclaimed for his skill in organic synthesis, his work answered questions of fundamental importance to biochemistry and life processes. He invented fluorescent probes and dimensional probes of enzyme-coenzyme binding sites and DNA double-helical cross sections.
Among his many honors were the ACS award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry (1963), the Medal for Creative Research in Synthetic Organic Chemistry of the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (1970), the Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry (1981), the first Creativity Award, University of Oregon (1994), and the first Paul G. Gassman Distinguished Service Award, Division of Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society (1994). He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a foreign member of the Polish Academy of Sciences, a fellow and past vice-president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and an honorary member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Japan.
At the time of his retirement in 1986, Professor Leonard had been at the University of Illinois for 44 years, directed 120 graduate students, and published over 400 papers. Professor Leonard was a Faculty Associate in Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. Nelson Jordan Leonard died on October 9, 2006 at the age of 90.
The Nelson J. Leonard Distinguished Lectureship Fund was created in Professor Leonard's honor at the time of his retirement in 1986 through contributions from colleagues, students, and friends, including the late Mrs. Louise Leonard, Eli Lilly and Company, Monsanto Company, and Organic Syntheses, Inc.