Childhood & Early Years
Edward Lawrie Tatum was born on 14 December 1909, at Boulder, Colorado. At the time of his birth, his father, Arthur Lawrie Tatum, was an instructor in chemistry at the University of Colorado. Later he earned his degrees and became a Professor of Pharmacology.
Edward’s mother, Mabel Webb Tatum, died while he was a child. His father later married Carla Harriman. Edward was the first surviving son of his parents. His twin, Elwood, died soon after the birth. He had two younger siblings; a brother named Howard J. Tatum and a sister named Besse C Tatum.
For greater part of his life, Arthur held different teaching positions in different universities in the Midwest. Therefore, while Edward was growing up, the family was moving from place to place. However, they always had a scientific environment at home, which helped grow his aptitude towards science.
From 1918 to 1928, Arthur was engaged at the University of Chicago. During this period, Edward studied at the University of Chicago Laboratory School and graduated from there in and around 1926.
Afterwards, Edward enrolled at the University of Chicago. But when after two years, his father moved to the University of Wisconsin Medical School as Professor of Pharmacology Edward shifted with him.
Ultimately, he earned his bachelor degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, in 1931. He then went on to earn M.S. degree in microbiology, in 1932, and PhD in biochemistry, in 1934, from the same university.
For his doctoral thesis, he chose to work on the nutrition and metabolism of bacteria. He soon established that microorganisms needed thiamine, also known as Vitamin B1, to grow. The thesis, which earned him his PhD, also laid the ground for his future work, which he undertook with G. W. Beadles.
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After receiving his PhD, Edward Tatum remained at the University of Wisconsin for a year and then in 1935, he went to Holland for his postdoctoral work receiving a General Education Fellowship at the University of Utrecht. There he worked on identifying growth factors in staphylocci, but was not very successful.
Subsequently, he returned to the University of Wisconsin and remained there till 1937. Sometime now, he was invited by Professor George W. Beadles to join him in his work on Drosophila at the University of Stanford, California.
Tatum also got an offer to work on the microbiology of butter. Although his father wanted him to take that up, Tatum joined Beadle’s team at the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Stanford as Research Associate without teaching responsibility, in 1937.
He first concentrated on extracting pigments precursors from the larvae of Drosophila. By 1941, he was successful in isolating the V+ hormone in a crystalline state from bacterial culture and identified it as kynurenine.
Unfortunately, Adolf Butenand, who was working on this independently, preceded him in this discovery and so Tatum received no credit for his work. Jarred by this experience he and Beadle decided to look for another model and chose Neurospora crassa.
By February 1941, Tatum and Beadle began exposing Neurospora to X-ray in order to obtain mutants that would have biochemical defects because of nutritional deficiency. Ultimately, it was the mutant number 299, which was the first identifiable mutant that required pyridoxine for normal synthesis.
Subsequently, they obtained hundred of mutants which were deficient in nutrition and began working on them. By May 1941, they were ready to submit their first report, in which they concluded that “the gene and enzyme specificities are of the same order”.
Later in the same year, they proposed a direct link between gene and enzymes, which led to the establishment of ‘one gene-one enzyme’ hypothesis. Although the theory has been refined by later scientists, it remains the same in essence.
In the winter of 1941, Tatum was promoted to the post of Assistant Professor. He then volunteered to develop and teach biochemistry course to both biology and chemistry students. However, because he was a chemistry graduate working in the biology department, his position became more and more shaky.
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Tatum left the University of Stanford in 1945 to join University of Washington at St. Louise. But after a semester he shifted to the University of Yale as Assistant Professor of Botany. Here he developed biochemically oriented microbiological course at the Department of Botany. Later, he became Professor of Microbiology in the same institute.
In 1946, Tatum, with Joshua Lederberg, began to work on bacteria. They used the same methodology, which Tatum had used on Neurospora and subsequently, discovered Escherichia coli bacteria of the K-12 strain entered a sexual phase, during which it could pass on genetic information.
In 1948, he returned to the University of Stanford as a full Professor in the Department of Biology. Here, he mostly pursued and supervised different biochemical projects. Later, when the School of Medicine was being reconstructed at the University premises Tatum helped to develop its curriculum.
In 1956, he was appointed head of the newly formed Department of Biochemistry. During this time the Institution became a major center of scholarship. However, for personal reason he left Stanford to join Rockefeller Institute towards the end of the year.
At the Rockefeller Institute, he concentrated on institutional affairs. At the same time, he also retained his interest on Neurospora and encouraged his students to nurture their own idea. In fact, he took more pride in their accomplishments than his own.
Towards the end of his career, he devoted considerable amount of time on national science policy and worked hard to strengthen fellowship programs. For some time, he also served as the Chairman of the Board at the Cold Spring Harbor Biological Laboratory.
Personal Life & Legacy
Tatum first married June Alton on 28 June 1934. The couple had two daughters, Margaret and Barbara. They divorced sometime in 1956.
On 16 December 1956, Tatum married Viola Kanter. They remained married until her death on 21 April 1974. Later that year, he tied the knot for the third time and married Elsie Bergland. They remained married until his death shortly after.
Tatum was a heavy smoker and suffered from chronic emphysema. He died on 7 November 1975, from heart failure.