Childhood & Early Life
Arthur Kornberg was born on March 3, 1918 in Brooklyn, New York City. His parents, Joseph and Lena (née Katz) Kornberg, were Jewish emigrants from Austrian Galicia, now part of Poland.
Arthur's father, Joseph Kornberg, did not have any formal education, but could speak at least six languages. In New York, he operated a sweet shop, but later as his health failed, he opened a hardware store. When Arthur turned nine, he began to lend a helping hand at the store.
An exceptionally bright student from the start, Arthur studied at Abraham Lincoln High School at Brooklyn, graduating from there in 1933. Upon receiving a scholarship he next enrolled in premedical course at City College, New York with biology and chemistry as his major.
He received his B. Sc. degree in 1937. He then joined University of Rochester Medical Center for his medical degree and received his MD in 1941. Here he began to develop interest in medical research.
Kornberg suffered from a hereditary genetic condition called Gilbert syndrome and his blood contained a slightly higher level of bilirubin. It made him susceptible to jaundice. While studying at the medical school, he began to take survey of his fellow students, trying to establish how common the syndrome was.
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Upon receiving his medical degree in 1941, Kornberg entered Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester for his internship, and completed the same in 1942. Subsequently, he joined the United States Coast Guard as a Lieutenant, serving as a ship's doctor, as part of his military service.
In 1942, he published the result of his above mentioned survey. Titled, ‘The Occurrence of Jaundice in an Otherwise Normal Medical Student’, it caught the attention of Rolla Dyer, the Director of National Institute of Health, who invited him to join his research team at the Nutritional Laboratory.
Kornberg took up this opportunity and joined National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Here he was assigned to the Nutrition Section of its Physiology Division. His job was to look for new vitamins by feeding rats with specialized diet. He did not find that motivating.
Instead, he developed interest in enzymes. In 1946, he got himself transferred to Dr Severo Ochoa's laboratory at New York University to learn more about enzyme purification techniques. Concurrently, he took summer courses at Columbia University to update his knowledge about organic and physical chemistry.
Next in 1947, Kornberg shifted to Washington University School of Medicine at St. Louis. Here he worked for few months with Carl Ferdinand Cori before returning to NIH at Bethesda.
At NIH, he was assigned to organize the Enzymes and Metabolism Section of the Physiology Division, which he did successfully. Subsequently, he became its Medical Director and served in this capacity until 1953.
During this period, Kornberg mainly concentrated on understanding how Adenosine triphosphate, a nucleoside triphosphate used in cells as a coenzyme, was produced from Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide and Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate. This work laid the foundation for his later research on DNA.
In 1953, he moved to Washington University in St. Louis as Professor and Head of the Department of Microbiology and remained there until 1959. Here he continued to work on those enzymes, which were deemed necessary for the creation of DNA.
Finally in 1956, he was able to isolate DNA polymerizing enzyme, which later came to be known as DNA polymerase I. Incidentally, it was the first known polymerase. The discovery won him Nobel Prize three years later.
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In 1959, Kornberg moved to the University of Stanford as Professor and Executive Head of the Department of Biochemistry and remained there for rest of his working life. Here, he took initiative in establishing a Department of Genetics, mainly to accommodate another Nobel Laurent Joshua Lederberg.
At Stanford, Kornberg continued his research on DNA biosynthesis. In this project he worked in close collaboration with Mehran Goulian. After years of grueling research, they finally announced their success on December 14, 1967.
Along with his work on DNA synthesis, Kornberg also tried to find out how spores store DNA and generate new cells. Although he earned limited success, he eventually abandoned this project.
Kornberg officially retired from his post in 1988. However, he had never ceased working and maintained an active research Laboratory at the University of Stanford until his death.
From 1991 onwards, Kornberg began to focus on the metabolism of inorganic polyphosphate, at that time, regarded as ‘molecular fossil’. Eventually, he found a variety of significant functions for it. For example, he found that it responds to stresses and stringencies; causes motility and virulence in some of the major pathogens.
In addition to his research work, Kornberg pursued teaching career with equal enthusiasm. Many of his students later went on to become internationally famous scientists and earned established awards.
He also p ublished several papers. His books include‘Enzymatic Synthesis of DNA (1961); DNA Synthesis, (1974); ‘DNA Replication’, (1980); ‘For the Love of Enzymes: The Odyssey of a Biochemist’ (1989); DNA Replication (2nd Edition) with Tania A. Baker (1992) and ‘The Golden Helix: Inside Biotech Ventures’ (2002).
Kornberg is best remembered for his work on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) polymerase. In 1956, he identified DNA Polymerase I (or Pol I) in the intestinal bacterium E coli and recognized it as an essential enzyme for replication, repair and rearrangements of DNA.
He also showed how a single strand of DNA formed new strands of nucleotides and proved that DNA had a double helix structure, as theorized by earlier scientists. This discovery helped to start a biotechnology revolution, which had far reaching consequences.
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Synthesis of artificial DNA, which was at the same time biologically active, was another of Kornberg’s major projects. The work not only helped in future studies of genetics, but also helped to provide cures to hereditary diseases and control viral infections.
Award & Achievements
In 1959, Kornberg received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his “discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid". He shared the prize with Dr Severo Ochoa, who had been working on the same topic at the New York University College of Medicine.
Prior to that, Kornberg had received Paul-Lewis Award in Enzyme Chemistry from American Chemical Society in 1951.
In 1968, he received the Scientific Achievement Award of the American Medical Association, the Lucy Wortham James Award of the Society of Medical Oncology and the Borden Award in the Medical Sciences of the Association of American Medical Colleges.
In addition, he had received National Medal of Science in 1979, Cosmos Club Award and Gairdner Foundation Award in 1995.
He was also elected a Fellow of Royal Society. In addition, he was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and American Philosophical Society. He received innumerable honorary degrees from many established institutions.
Personal Life & Legacy
On November 21, 1943, Kornberg married Sylvy Ruth Levy. She was also a noted biochemist and worked closely with him in the discovery of DNA Polymerase I. Unfortunately, she did not get any recognition for her contribution. She died in 1986, survived by Kornberg and their three sons.
Their eldest son, Roger David Kornberg is a Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Stanford and a Nobel Laureate. In 2006, he received the Nobel Prize for discovering how genetic information from DNA is copied to RNA.
Their second son, Thomas B. Kornberg, is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and noted for his discovery of DNA polymerase II and III (1970). Their youngest son, Kenneth Andrew Kornberg, is an architect specializing in the design of biomedical and biotechnology laboratories.
Two years after the death of his first wife, Kornberg tied the knot for the second time and in 1988, married Charlene Walsh Levering, who also predeceased him in 1995. In December 1998, he married Carolyn Frey Dixon. They remained married till his death in 2007.
Kornberg died on 26 October, 2007 in Stanford of respiratory failure. He was survived by his third wife Carolyn and three sons.
Many of his children (his students and postdoctoral fellows) and grandchildren (their students) turned out to be intellectuals. Together, they are referred as ‘The Kornberg’s School of Biochemistry’.