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Arthur Kornberg

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Arthur Kornberg

Written by: jrreid

A. Personal Information Arthur Kornberg (1918-), American biochemist and physician, claims he has never met "a dull enzyme." He has devoted his life to pursuing and purifying these critical protein molecules. His love of science did not spring from a family history rooted in science. He was born on March 3rd, 1918, the son of a sewing machine operator in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side of New York City. His parents, Joseph Aaron Kornberg and Lena Rachel Katz, were immigrant Jews who made great sacrifices to ensure the safety of their family. They had fled Poland, for if they had stayed, they would have been murdered in a German concentration camp. His grandfather had abandoned the paternal family name Queller, of Spanish origin. This was done to escape the fate of the army draft; he had taken the name of Kornberg, a man who had already done his service. His father used their meager earnings to bring and settle his family in New York City and was thrust into the sweatshops as a sewing machine operator. He, along with his brother Martin, 13 years older and sister Ella, nine years older, was encouraged by loving parents to obtain a good education. The public school reinforced this ideal. Education was the road of opportunity for social and economic mobility out of the sweatshops.

His early education in grade school and Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn was distinguished only by his "skipping " several grades. There was nothing inspirational about his courses except the teachers' encouragement to get good grades. When he received a grade of 100 in the New York State Regents Examination, his chemistry teacher glowed with pride. It was the first time in over twenty years of teaching that a student of his had gotten a perfect grade. Arthur was a brilliant student who graduated from high school at the age of fifteen. He enrolled in City College in uptown Manhattan. Competition among a large body of bright and highly motivated students was fierce in all subjects. His high school interest in chemistry carried over into college. After receiving his B.S. degree in biology and chemistry in 1937, and since City College offered no graduate studies or research laboratories at that time, he became one of two hundred pre-med students at the University of Rochester. All through college he worked as a salesman in his parents' furnishing store, and earned about $14 a week. This along with a New York State Regents Scholarship of $100 a year and with no college tuition to pay he was able to save enough money to pay for the first half of medical school. While a student, he became aware of a mild jaundice (yellowing) in his eyes. He observed a similar condition among other students and patients at the hospital and published these findings, his first professional paper, in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

He enjoyed studying to become a doctor, and his goal was to practice internal medicine, preferably in an academic setting. The medical school curriculum was uncrowded and close contact with a distinguished faculty was encouraged, but to his shock anti-Semitism was rampant in the academic circles. He was denied academic awards and research opportunities because he was Jewish. He had hoped to receive one of the fellowships from the medical school which allowed a few outstanding students to spend a year doing research, even though the idea of spending a significant amount of his days in the laboratory had no appeal at that time. To his disappointment he was passed over in every department, due to the ethnic and religious barriers which existed during that time, even though his grades were the highest. Although one professor at Rochester stood out, William S. McCann, Chairman of the Department of Medicine, the only one who made any effort to help Kornberg. William McCann persuaded a wealthy patient to endow a scholarship of which Kornberg was the recipient. This enabled Kornberg to pursue his first research project (on jaundice), and allowed him to be appointed to an internship in medicine, and then to an assistant residency, which would groom him for a career in academic medicine. Following his graduation in 1941, Kornberg enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, being assigned duty as a medical officer in the Caribbean. Officials at the National Institute of Health in Maryland, aware of his brief clinical study on the subject of jaundice, arranged for Kornberg's transfer to the institute. He spent the remainder of World War II carrying out research in the nutrition laboratory. In 1943, Kornberg married Sylvy Levy; he enjoyed not only companionship with Sylvy but also laboratory collaboration with a gifted wife. Her suggestions and advice would play major roles in his research. He has also enjoyed the privilege of fathering three sons, Tom, Ken, and Roy who have exhibited extraordinary scientific and professional achievements.

B. Professional Information The National Institute of health was founded by Joseph Goldberger, one of the first scientists to recognize that a vitamin deficiency could cause an epidemic disease. Dr. Goldberger discovered the vitamin niacin, a member of the B complex of vitamins. Dr. Goldberger emerged as one of the greatest vitamin hunters. During Kornberg's stay at the institute, from 1942 to 1945, his work contributed to the isolation of another vitamin in the B complex, folic acid. He always felt that he had come to the nutrition research in its twilight, decades too late to share the excitement and adventures of the early vitamin hunters who had solved riddles of diseases that had plagued the world for centuries. His envy of their exploits would eventually impel him to search for a new frontier. Having fed rats a purified diet for three years, he became frustrated with not knowing what vitamins really did and decided on a leave of absence. Kornberg wanted to immerse himself in the new biochemistry and study enzymes.

A new breed of hunters tracking down the metabolic enzymes intrigued him. He spent a year, 1945, with Severo Ochoa at the New York University School of Medicine and a year with Carl and Gerty Cori at the Washington University School of Medicine. This is where he got to know enzymes for the first time and was captivated with them. In Ochoa's lab he learned the philosophy and practice of enzyme purification. To attain the goal of a pure protein, the cardinal rule is that the ratio of enzyme activity to the total protein is increased to the limit. Despite initial failures, the immersion in enzymology was intoxicating to Kornberg; he discovered the momentum of experimental work exciting. Although enzymes were recognized in the nineteenth century as catalysts for certain chemical events in nature, their importance was



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