News Release

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Papers of Arthur Kornberg Added to the National Library of Medicine's Profiles in Science Web Site

The National Library of Medicine, a constituent institute of the National Institutes of Health, in collaboration with the Stanford University Archives, announces the release of an extensive selection from the papers of biochemist Arthur Kornberg (1918 - 2007), who received the 1959 Nobel Prize for his synthesis of DNA, on the Library's Profiles in Science Web site.

With this addition, the number of prominent researchers, public health officials, and promoters of medical research whose personal and professional records are presented on Profiles has grown to 24. The site is at

"Starting in 1950, Arthur Kornberg elucidated the biochemistry of the gene, enzyme by enzyme. He was the first to synthesize DNA in vitro, the first to synthesize an infective virus DNA, and he discovered many related enzymes that were essential for the development of recombinant DNA technology," said Donald A. B. Lindberg, M.D., director of the National Library of Medicine.

Born and raised in New York City, Kornberg entered City College of New York in 1933, at age 15. Though he had no special interest in science, he did well in chemistry courses and chose to pursue a medical career. Kornberg received his MD from the University of Rochester in 1941, planning to practice internal medicine.

He began his World War II military service as a Coast Guard ship's doctor. However, his career took an unexpected turn in 1942, after the director of the National Institutes of Health, then desperately seeking new information on jaundice due to an outbreak of the disease caused by yellow fever vaccine, read a paper Kornberg had written on the subject. Impressed by Kornberg's careful research, the director reassigned him to a post in the Nutrition Laboratory at NIH.

At NIH Kornberg studied vitamin deficiency diseases, and became intrigued by the central role of enzymes—the large specialized proteins that catalyze all living processes by assembling or breaking down larger molecules.

He established an enzyme research laboratory at NIH and discovered the synthesis pathways for many enzymes essential to cell metabolism. Several years later, he turned his attention to finding the enzymes that assemble various chemical components first into individual nucleotides and then into DNA and RNA.

In 1953, Kornberg accepted a post at Washington University in St. Louis, and continued his work on nucleotide and nucleic acid synthesis. By 1956, he had found and purified the DNA-assembling enzyme, DNA polymerase, and within a year was using it to synthesize DNA from a wide variety of sources. He received the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this work.

In mid-1959 Kornberg became chairman of the new department of biochemistry at the Stanford University School of Medicine. At Stanford, Kornberg and his colleagues continued to identify and delineate the workings of various enzymes involved in DNA replication. In 1967 they synthesized an infective virus DNA, an achievement lauded by the press as the "creation of life in a test tube." During the next 20 years they found enzymes responsible for DNA repair and rearrangement, and others responsible for the start and elongation of DNA chains. These enzymes, by allowing the manipulation of DNA, helped make possible the development of recombinant DNA technology and the engineering of genes and chromosomes.

In the early 1990s, Kornberg shifted his research focus to inorganic polyphosphate, a cell constituent that piqued his curiosity decades earlier when he discovered the enzyme that made it. More recently, he joined the ranks of Nobel Prize families, when his eldest son Roger won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Kornberg was still working in his lab until a few days before his death on October 26th.

Profiles in Science features correspondence, published articles, lab notebook excerpts, and photographs from the Arthur Kornberg Papers at the Stanford University Archives. Visitors to the site can view, for example, lab notebooks detailing DNA synthesis work, and letters exchanged between Kornberg and Joshua Lederberg, Francis Crick, Gobind Khorana, and other pioneers in genetics and molecular biology.

Located in Bethesda, Maryland, the National Library of Medicine is the world's largest library of the health sciences. For more information, visit the Web site at

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