Childhood & Early Life
Daniel Nathans was born on October 30, 1928 in Wilmington, Delaware, USA. His father was Samuel Nathans and his mother was Sarah Levitan, both Jewish immigrants from Russia.
He was the youngest of the eight children of Samuel and Sarah Nathans.
He did his schooling from the public schools in Wilmington and had to do part-time jobs from the age of ten to support his family.
After finishing school he attended the ‘University of Delaware’ to study philosophy, chemistry and literature.
At his father’s insistence he decided on a medical career after he received his B.Sc. degree in chemistry from the ‘University of Delaware’ in 1950.
He joined the ‘Washington University School of Medicine’ in St Louis, Missouri. He planned of returning to Wilmington after becoming a doctor.
Even though he loved the medical training very much, he was especially attracted towards laboratory research while working under the famous pharmacologist, Oliver Lowry during the summer of 1951.
He earned his medical degree in 1954 and resolved to pursue a career in academic medicine where he could treat patients as well as carry out research work.
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Daniel Nathans joined the ‘Columbia Presbyterian Hospital’ and worked as an intern for some time under the supervision of Robert Loeb.
Before the start of his medical residency period, he joined the ‘National Cancer Institute’ under the ‘National Institutes of Health’ in Bethesda, Maryland as a clinical associate. While working there, he divided his time treating patients who were receiving experimental chemotherapy for cancer and on research related to ‘plasma-cell tumors’ found in mice which were similar to ‘multiple myeloma’ found in humans.
Surprised at the lack of information on cancer biology, he started his research on the synthesis of proteins in ‘myeloma tumors’ and was soon able to publish his findings.
He returned to the ‘Columbia Presbyterian Hospital’ in 1957 to complete a two year medical residency and to carry on with his ambition of following a career in academic medicine.
He continuing with his research on the problem of protein synthesis whenever he had spare time after treating patients.
In 1959 he decided to devote all his time to research and joined the ‘Fritz Lipmann laboratory’ at the ‘Rockefeller Institute’ in New York as a research associate.
It was an interesting time for Nathans at the ‘Rockefeller Institute’, as great mysteries like the way in which ‘genetic material DNA’ directs the production of the required proteins and enzymes by the cells were being unraveled together by microbiologists, biochemists and geneticists.
Nathans initially went on with his efforts in synthesizing protein from the extracts of cells affected by myeloma. He pursued the problem with cultures of the E.Coli bacteria when persuaded by Smith, a postdoctoral colleague.
His three years at the ‘Rockefeller Institute’ convinced him that the ‘science of medicine’ was better than the ‘practice of medicine’ and he stared looking for a place where he could do more research as well as teach.
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He joined the ‘John Hopkins University’ in Baltimore as a professor of microbiology in 1972 when the post was offered to him by W. Barry Wood who had been one of his mentors during medical school and now held the chair at the ‘John Hopkins University’.
He continued with his research on protein synthesis and also on the blocking effect of antibiotics like ‘puromycin’ on the process.
During the mid-1960s he was asked to give a few lectures on animal viruses when a couple of virologists left their posts. He became interested in viruses that cause tumors while preparing for his lectures.
In 1969 he took a six-month sabbatical leave to be at the ‘Weizmann Institute’ in Israel to learn more about the techniques of cell-culture and about a small tumor virus known as the ‘simian virus 40’ or ‘SV40’.
While he was in Israel, his colleague Hamilton Smith at the JHU informed him about the bacteria called ‘Haemophilus influenzae’ that could cut the DNA of other species at particular places. He immediately recognized that such an enzyme could be used to make small uniform fragments of the DNA of a virus so that it could be mapped and its structure determined.
He brought back some of the SV40 with him from Israel and started to apply the enzyme discovered by Smith on it and other ‘restriction enzymes’ on it. Soon they were able to map the ‘SV40’ virus and the ‘restriction enzymes’ was established as the tool for molecular biology and genetics.
He continued his researches on SV40 through the 1980s and later shifted from tumor viruses to cellular genes which got activated when cells were given stimulation to grow and multiply.
He served as the director of the ‘Microbiology Department’ of the JHU from 1972 to 1982.
He served as the ‘Senior Investigator’ of the ‘Howard Hughes Medical Institutes from 1981 to 1999.
He served as the interim president of JHU during from 1995 to 1996 after which he returned to his research work.
Personal Life & Legacy
He was married to Joanne Gomberg, a lawyer, whom he had met in Bethesda. They had three sons from the marriage named Eli, Ben and Jeremy.
Daniel Nathans died of leukemia on November 16, 1999 in Baltimore.