Arthur Kornberg, Nobel winner and Rochester alumnus, dies

October 30, 2007

Arthur Kornberg, Nobel Prize laureate and a 1941 graduate of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, died Friday (Oct. 26) of respiratory failure at Stanford Hospital in California. He was 89.

Dr. Kornberg, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1959, unraveled the process of DNA replication and was the first to synthesize DNA in a test tube. His identification of the enzymes used by cells to assemble DNA helped create the era of biotechnology, genetic engineering and drugs for cancer, diabetes, AIDS and other diseases.

In 1999, the University of Rochester named a new medical research building, the centerpiece of a 10-year $500-million research expansion, after Dr. Kornberg and his Nobel medal is displayed there.

“The University of Rochester is immensely proud of the life and accomplishments of Arthur Kornberg,” said Joel Seligman, University president. “For those of us privileged to know him, he was more than a Nobel laureate scientist — he was an ebullient personality and a particularly warm human being.”

Bradford C. Berk, M.D., Ph.D., chief executive officer of the University of Rochester Medical Center, said Dr. Kornberg’s support “galvanized our efforts to grow medical research, recruit top scientists and increase National Institutes of Health funding.”

David S. Guzick, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, said Dr. Kornberg’s long career “demonstrates that the pursuit of knowledge through basic research can be translated into discoveries that can change the way we treat and cure our patients.”

A Love Affair with Enzymes

Dr. Kornberg, who was professor emeritus of biochemistry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, had intended to pursue a career in internal medicine. But he often said he fell in love with enzymes. He completed an internship at Strong Memorial Hospital and served briefly as a ship’s doctor in the U.S. Navy. But his research record in medical school attracted officials at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who took him from the Navy for a rare research position. 

In his first assignment at NIH, Dr. Kornberg studied the biochemistry of vitamins and nutrition. But he soon became interested in the role of enzymes. He went to study enzyme chemistry with Severo Ochoa at New York University, with whom he would later share the Nobel Prize, and in the lab of Carl and Gerti Cori at Washington University in St. Louis. In 1947, Dr. Kornberg established the Enzyme and Metabolism Section of the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Disease.

At NIH, Kornberg had become re-acquainted with Sylvy Levy a 1938 graduate of the University of Rochester who also earned a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University. They married in 1943 and eventually had three sons. With the exception of six years taken to raise their children, she spent her career working in his laboratory until her death in 1986.

In 1953, the year James Watson and Francis Crick revealed the double-helix structure of DNA, Dr. Kornberg accepted a position as professor and head of the Department of Microbiology at Washington University. Having already determined that DNA’s chemical building blocks, called nucleotides, were made in the cells, he decided to look for enzymes that might be responsible for assembling those nucleotides into molecules of DNA.

His research was conducted in a crowded laboratory with his wife and several research fellows. They performed a series of experiments in which they tagged certain nucleotides with a radioactive marker to observe their assembly into DNA molecules and also observe the enzymes that directed the assembly.

Dr. Kornberg and his team were able to extract the enzyme, which he named DNA polymerase, from cells of the bacterium E. coli.  In 1957, he used the enzyme to synthesize DNA in a test tube, demonstrating its role in the replication of DNA.  Dr. Kornberg’s findings were published in May 1958 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and the following year he was appointed chairman of the Department of Biochemistry at Stanford.

In 1967, Dr. Kornberg and his team became the first to produce the active inner core of a virus in a laboratory. In 1991, Dr. Kornberg switched his focus to inorganic polyphosphate, a molecule he nicknamed “poly P.” It is found in every bacterial, plant and animal cell. Dr. Kornberg was convinced it was critical in the evolution of Earth’s first cellular organisms and could be used to develop new drugs.

A Legacy for Generations

Dr. Kornberg, who was born in Brooklyn, was the son of Jewish immigrant parents who had fled Eastern Europe to escape religious oppression.  He distinguished himself as a gifted student at an early age. As a youngster he skipped several grades and in high school he earned a score of 100 percent on the New York State Regents Exam in Chemistry. He graduated high school at the age of 15 and enrolled at City College of New York. Of 200 pre-med students in his graduating class, he was one of five accepted into medical school. He moved to Rochester in the fall of 1937.

As a medical student, Dr. Kornberg excelled academically. His first scientific paper, on jaundice, was accepted for publication by the prestigious Journal of Clinical Investigation when he was a fourth-year medical student.  Surprisingly, the study of biochemistry, to which he eventually would devote his career, held little interest for him as a medical student.

In addition to being a prolific researcher, Dr. Kornberg was also a gifted administrator. He built Stanford’s biochemistry department, recruiting a talented group of scientists who worked together for nearly half a century before they began to retire.

Phillip Pizzo, M.D., dean of Stanford’s School of Medicine and a 1970 graduate of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, called Dr. Kornberg’s death “really the passing of a generation.”

“Without doubt, his legacy will live on for many, many generations to come,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

At the time of the dedication of the Arthur Kornberg Medical Research Building, Jay H. Stein, M.D.,  then chief executive officer of the Medical Center, called Dr. Kornberg “an icon who represented what we hope to accomplish in this building – the pursuit of science that leads to new treatments and cures for diseases.”

Dr. Kornberg was the author of several books. Germ Stories, his last book, is scheduled to be available in bookstores Nov. 15 and is written for children. He lived to see his son Roger receive the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In 1988, Dr. Kornberg married Charlene Walsh Levering, who died in 1995. In 1998, he married Carolyn Frey Dixon. In addition to his wife, he is survived by sons Roger, a professor of structural biology at Stanford; Thomas, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at University of California at San Francisco; and Kenneth, an architect and founder of the laboratory design firm Kornberg Associates of Menlo Park and San Diego; and eight grandchildren. Stanford will host a celebration of his life and legacy. Details have yet to be announced.

For Media Inquiries:
Public Relations Department
(585) 275-3676
Email Public Relations