James B. Sumner Biography


Birthday: November 19, 1887 (Scorpio)

Born In: Canton, Massachusetts, United States

James B. Sumner was an American chemist who received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1946 for his isolation of the enzyme called ‘urease’. He established the fact that enzymes had a nature similar to that of proteins which was a controversial topic at that time. He was the first scientist to isolate and crystallize the enzyme which is found in jack beans. His discovery was not taken seriously initially as everybody thought that isolating the enzyme was not possible. He was especially ridiculed by the famous German chemist Richard Willstatter who thought that what Sumner claimed was completely impossible. When another chemist named John H. Northrop was successful in isolating another enzyme called ‘Pepsin’ in 1930 at the ‘Rockfeller Institute, Sumner was given credit for his initial discovery. His research was initially based on analytical methods which did not produce any mentionable results though he worked hard. He then decided to isolate the ‘urease’ enzyme in pure form which had not been attempted previously. When it was proven that he had indeed derived an enzyme from his experiments, it seemed that he had devised a general process for isolating and crystallizing enzymes which had been never done before. He shared his Nobel Prize with Northrop and Wendell M. Stanley for this discovery.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: James Batcheller Sumner

Died At Age: 67


Spouse/Ex-: Cid Ricketts Sumner

father: Charles Sumner

mother: Elizabeth Rand Kelly Sumner

siblings: Amie Sumner

Chemists Biochemists

Died on: August 12, 1955

place of death: Buffalo, New York, United States

Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Chemistry

Cause of Death: Cancer

U.S. State: Massachusetts

More Facts

education: Harvard University

Childhood & Early Life
James B. Sumner was born on November 19, 1887 in Canton, Massachusetts, USA. His ancestors were from Bicester, England who had immigrated to Boston, US in 1636.
His father Charles Sumner was a cotton manufacturer and his mother was Elizabeth Rand Kelly Sumner. He had a sister named Amie Sumner.
His grandfather owned a farm and a cotton factory while his father owned a large estate.
He initially attended the Eliot Grammar School for a few years during his schooldays.
Later on he went to the ‘Roxbury Latin School, West Roxbury, Massachusetts’.
After graduating from high school he attended the ‘Harvard University’ in 1906 from where he received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1910.
He was left one-armed throughout his life after a shooting accident as a teenager.
He resigned from the assistantship in chemistry at the ‘Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Mass, in 1912 to study biochemistry under Professor Otto Folin at the ‘Harvard Medical School’.
He persisted and got his PhD in chemistry from the ‘Harvard University’ in 1914 even though Professor Otto Folin thought Sumner could not become a successful chemist with one hand.
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James B. Sumner started working at his uncle’s cotton knitting factory after getting his bachelor’s degree but he soon lost interest in the work.
He joined as a teacher of Chemistry and Physiology at the ‘Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada’ where he worked from 1910 to 1911.
He did an assistantship in chemistry at the ‘Worcester Polytechnic Institute’ from 1911 to 1912.
Sumner was in Switzerland at the outbreak of the First World War when he received an invitation to teach Biochemistry at the ‘Cornell Medical School, Ithaca, NY’. He worked there from 1914 to 1929.
During the early stages of his research he was awarded an American-Belgian fellowship in 1921. He decided to go to Brussels and work with Jean Effront who was an authority on enzymes. This plan was unsuccessful as Effront thought that Sumner’s method of isolating the ‘unrease’ enzyme was highly doubtful.
He went back to Ithaca and continued with his research until he was successful in doing so in 1926. Every biochemist who was told of his discovery disbelieved him but Sumner was able to get a full professorship in 1929.
In 1937 he succeeded in isolating a second enzyme called ‘Catalase’ in the crystalline form while working at the laboratory in the ‘Cornell Medical School’.
Later on he became the Director of the ‘Enzyme Chemistry Laboratory’ in the ‘Cornell University’ and held the post from 1947 to 1955.
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Major Works
James B. Sumner published his first book ‘Textbook of Biological Chemistry’ in 1927.
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In 1943 he published his second book ‘The Chemistry and Methods of Enzymes’ with G. Fred Somers. His second book with Somers was ‘Laboratory Experiments in Biological Chemistry’ which came out in 1944.
His fourth book ‘The Enzymes: Chemistry and Mechanism of Action’ with Karl Myrback was published in four volumes in 1951-52.
Awards & Achievements
James B. Sumner received the ‘Guggenheim Fellowship’ in 1937 to work at Professor The Svedberg’s laboratory in Uppsala.
He was awarded the ‘Scheele Medal’ in 1937.
In 1946 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
In 1948 he was given a membership of the ‘National Academy of Sciences, USA’ in 1948.
He was also made a Fellow of the ‘American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ in 1949.
Personal Life & Legacy
His first was with Bertha Louise Ricketts, an American novelist, on July 10, 1915 whom he later divorced in 1930. He had four children from this marriage. He had two daughters named Roberta and Prudence.
His second wife was Agnes Paulina Lundkvist whom he married in 1931 and also divorced later. He did not have any children from this marriage.
His third marriage was with Mary Morrison in 1943 and he had two children from this marriage.
James B. Sumner died of cancer on August 12, 1955 at Buffalo, NY, USA.
He was fond of hunting and during one of these hunting expeditions he was accidentally shot in the left arm by a companion. He lost his left arm from the elbow downwards which had to be amputated due to the accident when he was 17 years old. He had to learn from the beginning how to use his right arm including how to write as he was left handed and even tried to excel in all types of sporting activities.

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