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Nobel for Rug Cleaner? It's a Prize Foul-Up

October 15, 1987|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

Donald Cram's work with chemicals tends mostly to mixing and applying rug shampoos for customers of his carpet cleaning business.

On Wednesday morning, the Altadena man picked up his telephone to learn that his work had won him the 1987 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

"Now, I do a good job on carpets, but this seemed a little excessive," Cram said.

The transatlantic call from Stockholm at 6:10 a.m. was an embarrassing wrong number for the secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who was trying to reach Dr. Donald J. Cram, 68, the UCLA chemistry professor who shared this year's award for his research into artificial molecules.

Because the professor's number was unlisted, the international operator connected academy secretary Tord Ganelius with the only Donald Cram in the listings, Donald O. Cram, 38, of Altadena.

"I figured it was a practical joke, but a real good one," the carpet cleaner said. "He had a real thick accent and there was all this background noise. I told him 'This is great,' and he thought I meant the prize. I meant I thought the joke was great."

Has Happened Before

While Donald Cram the scientist celebrated Wednesday at UCLA's Chemistry Department with colleagues, Donald Cram the carpet cleaner took the day off with his family to retell his story to friends and reporters, often pounding his knee with laughter.

Fielding phone calls in his paneled office, the giggling carpet cleaner even managed to get a call in to the prize-winning chemist to apologize for stealing his thunder.

"That's OK," the professor replied. "I needed the extra sleep."

In Stockholm, a rueful Ganelius told the Associated Press that there is a history of Nobel Prize calls that have ended up as wrong numbers. "These things have happened before," he said, mentioning one call to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor that was routed to a dentist in Cambridge, Mass.

When the call from Ganelius came Wednesday morning, it woke the entire Cram household. The first to reach the receiver in the kitchen was Cram's 11-year-old son, Jonathan. "He gave me some name that I couldn't understand," Jonathan said.

Cram then took the call and heard the same thick accent. He listened as the man identified himself as the secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy "of something or other" and heard himself addressed as "Professor Cram."

The caller said: "It is my privilege to inform you that you have won the 1987 Nobel Prize."

"I tried to tell him he had the wrong guy, but I was laughing too hard," Cram said. Finally, the carpet cleaner hung up on Ganelius and went back to bed.

Cram's wife, Carol, wanted to know who was calling so early in the morning.

He told her he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize. "That's nice," she said and turned over to sleep.

Five minutes later, the phone rang again. Trying to stifle his laughter, Cram asked Ganelius to describe the "work" that had won him his prize. When the caller went into a complicated explanation of how Dr. Donald J. Cram helped develop artificial molecules that mimic natural processes, Donald O. Cram realized the error.

Wrong Donald Cram

"You've got the wrong Donald Cram," he told Ganelius. "You want the Donald Cram of UCLA, don't you? You've got the Donald Cram of Altadena."

He heard several men laughing at the other end.

Then Ganelius apologized for the early morning call. "I hope you appreciate the humor of this situation."

The two Crams had crossed paths before.

More than 16 years ago, when Donald O. Cram was a chemistry student studying at USC, he received mail addressed to the UCLA professor. Cram knew who the chemistry professor was and even used his textbook.

Once, he sent the chemistry professor a note along with his misaddressed mail. "We can't possibly share the same name," the student wrote. "I will meet you at noon at Main Street in L.A. and we'll shoot it out."

Have Never Met

They have never met, although the chemistry professor's wife bumped into the carpet cleaner once at a meeting of the American Chemistry Society. "She said, 'You're the young man I wanted to see,' and gave me a hug," said Donald O. Cram.

When the chemistry professor learned of the misrouted call, he laughed, recalling their earlier mix-ups. "This is pretty funny," he said. "There is some chemistry involved in carpet cleaning, but it's a little different from the kind I practice."

The carpet cleaner, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1971, said he has been fascinated by "the most exact of sciences" all his life. He admitted, however, that other than blending alkaline rug cleaners with more acidic varieties, he has not fooled with test tubes lately.

"I've got them packed away somewhere," he said. "After this morning, maybe I ought to start again."

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