William Bonner's energetic scientific and teaching career at Stanford University spanned 37 years. His research into the mechanisms of organic chemical reactions probed important questions about molecular structure and reactivity, including the origins of "left-handed" asymmetry in the amino acids essential to all life on Earth. He taught undergraduate organic chemistry for many years; his textbook in the subject was very well-received.
He was born in Chicago in December 1919, and received his bachelor's degree from Harvard University in 1941. He performed doctoral research in chemistry with Professor Charles D. Hurd at Northwestern University (PhD 1944) before spending a short time as instructor there. He joined the faculty at Stanford as an instructor in 1946, moving quickly to Assistant, then Associate Professor in 1947–51 and full Professor of Chemistry from 1959 through his retirement in 1983. Professor Bonner was one of the pioneers in the use of radioactive labling to study chemical reactions. From the beginning, his research explored chirality – molecular "handedness"– and how molecular shape affects chemical function. He and colleague Edward Rubenstein proposed that circularly polarized radiation from supernovae could have destroyed right-handed amino acid enantiomers, leaving the preponderance of left-handed amino acids that serve as building blocks for proteins in all known living organisms.