Childhood & Early Life
Erwin Chargaff was born on August 11, 1905, in Czernowitz, Duchy of Bukovina, Austria-Hungary (present-day Chernivtsi, Ukraine), to Hermann Chargaff and Rosa Silberstein. His was an educated Austrian Jewish family, and his father owned a bank.
He grew up with his younger sister, Greta. Erwin initially took a long time to learn to speak.
When he was 5, Erwin’s father’s bank faced financial issues due to embezzlement. As World War I broke out in July 1914, he and his family moved to Vienna.
Apparently, they were enjoying a vacation at a resort near Baltic Sea when the Russians marched into Czernowitz. They escape instead of returning home.
Erwin was 9 when he reached Vienna. He attended the ‘Maximiliansgymnasium’ (presently the ‘Gymnasium Wasagasse’), which was one of the city’s best schools. He studied Greek and Latin there. He also joined the ‘Boy Scouts’ and read a lot of Western classical literature.
He then joined the ‘Vienna College of Technology’ (or the ‘Technische Hochschule Wien’). He met his future wife, Vera Broido, there.
He chose to study chemistry, mostly because he was disillusioned about what to choose. He also though being a chemist would help him get a job at the alcohol factory of a rich uncle.
He graduated with a PhD in chemistry from the ‘University of Vienna’ in 1928. His thesis, written under guide Fritz Feigl, revolved around organic silver complexes and the reaction between iodine with azides.
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Erwin worked as a ‘Milton Campbell Research Fellow’ of organic chemistry at ‘Yale University,’ New Haven, Connecticut, from 1925 to 1930.
However, when he had first arrived in the United States, an immigration officer had held him because his title was “Doctor.” Incidentally, he had a student visa, whereas the officer had thought he was a doctor.
He thus spent his first few days in the United States on Ellis Island, before being rescued by Treat Johnson, who was a professor of Chemistry at ‘Yale.’
At ‘Yale,’ he published seven papers with Rudolph Anderson and discovered two branched-chain fatty acids. He also studied the tuberculosis bacterium. However, Erwin soon returned to Europe, as he did not like Connecticut much.
He stayed in Europe from 1930 to 1934. From 1930 to 1933, he worked as the assistant-in-charge of chemistry at the department of bacteriology and public health (‘Institute of Hygiene’) of the ‘University of Berlin.’
Due to the discriminatory ‘Nazi’ policies against Jews, after Hitler became the Chancellor in 1933, Erwin had to resign from his position in Germany.
In March that year, he was invited to join the ‘Pasteur Institute in Paris’ as a research associate. He moved to Paris and served in the position from 1933 to 1934. There, he worked on bacterial pigments and polysaccharides.
However, even in Paris, he witnessed racism, as foreigners were being referred to as “métèque,” a derogatory term used to refer to people of southern European descent.
In 1935, he migrated to Manhattan, New York City. He then took up a job as a research associate at the biochemistry department of ‘Columbia University.’
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At ‘Columbia,’ Erwin published countless scientific papers, predominantly related to the study of nucleic acids, such as DNA.
In 1938, he became an assistant professor. In 1952, he became a professor. From 1970 to 1974, he served as the department chair and then retired as a professor emeritus.
He then shifted his lab to ‘Roosevelt Hospital’ and continued to work there till he retired in 1992. In 1940, he became an American citizen.
DNA & Chargaff�
Initially, between 1936 and 1948, his studies focused on blood coagulation. Meanwhile, he developed an interest in DNA in 1944, after Oswald Avery and his associates at New York’s ‘Rockefeller Institute’ discovered that genes, the origin of heredity, were composed of DNA (the Avery–MacLeod–McCarty experiment).
He was also inspired by quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s 1944 book ‘What is Life?,’ which was another pioneering work on the gene.
He worked with many colleagues, including Ernst Vischer and Charlotte Green. Erwin worked on DNA, while Green and Vischer used partition chromatography to separate it into individual components for ultraviolet spectrophotometry analysis.
The results suggested that there were marked differences in the DNA taken from various species. In 1947, Erwin thought the DNA molecule probably resembled a Moebius strip which, if divided along the middle, would transfer the topology of the parent molecule to the resultant parts.
Albrecht Kossel had already stated earlier that DNA contains four bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine (A, C, G, and T).
By 1949, Erwin had discovered that different species have different proportions of bases in their DNA, which causes differences in them. Previously, Phoebus Levene, had stated that the proportions of the bases in a DNA did not differ.
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In 1950, Erwin stated that the amounts of thymine and adenine in DNA were almost the same, as were the amounts of guanine and cytosine. This came to be known as the first of the two Chargaff's Rules.
Thus, the first Chargaff’s Rule states that in any species, the ratio of A:T is 1:1 and that of G:C is 1:1. The second rule states that the other ratios, such as A:G, differ from species to species.
In May 1952, Erwin met James D. Watson and Francis Crick of the ‘Cavendish Laboratory,’ in Cambridge, UK, and spoke to them about his work. Crick, as a result of the conversation, discovered that the structure of the DNA consisted of paired bases and a probable lock-and-key mechanism.
Within a year of this incident, Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix structure of the DNA. Although they mentioned one of Erwin’s papers in their iconic 1953 DNA paper in ‘Nature,’ they failed to give him due credit.
Against Molecular Biology
Since the 1950s, Erwin became outspoken against molecular biology. He believed that man’s relentless pursuit to control nature through genetic engineering would spell doom for the world.
Following the ‘Nobel Prize’ win of Crick, Watson, and Maurice Wilkins in 1962, for their work on the double helix of DNA, Erwin voluntarily withdrew from all research activities.
Awards & Achievements
Although he failed to get the ‘Nobel,’ Erwin had won other honors and awards. In 1965, he was elected to the ‘National Academy of Sciences.’ He also won the ‘Pasteur Medal’ (1949), the ‘Carl Neuberg Medal’ (1958), the ‘Charles Leopold Mayer Prize’ (1963), the ‘Heineken Prize’ (1964), the ‘Gregor Mendel Medal’ (1974), and the ‘National Medal of Science’ (1975).
Family, Personal Life, & Death
Erwin got married to Vera Broido in September 1929 in New York. They had a son, Thomas, who was born in 1939.
By the late 1930s, when the ‘Nazis’ were in their prime, Erwin made an effort to bring his mother to the United States. His father had passed away in 1934. However, his mother was deported in 1943 and nothing was heard of her again.
Erwin died in Manhattan, New York, on June 20, 2002, at age 96. He was buried in ‘Mount Carmel Cemetery,’ New York.