Walter Gilbert Biography
Sun Sign: Aries
Born in: Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Famous as: Biochemist, Physicist, Molecular Biologist
Spouse/Ex-: Celia Stone
father: Richard V. Gilbert
mother: Emma (Cohen)
U.S. State: Massachusetts
awards: NAS Award in Molecular Biology (1968)
Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (1979)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1980)
Walter Gilbert is an American biochemist and physicist who won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980. He is also an internationally acclaimed pioneer in molecular biology. The son of a prominent economist and a psychologist, he grew up in an intellectually stimulating environment and developed a voracious appetite for reading. He loved science from an early age and as a young boy became a member of a minerological society and an astronomical society. While studying in high school he became drawn to inorganic chemistry and nuclear physics. A brilliant student, he was easily accepted into the Harvard University and graduated with a degree in physics. Then he proceeded to the Cambridge University for his doctorate and earned his Ph.D. in Physics under the supervision of the Nobel laureate Abdus Salam. He returned to Harvard to begin his academic career and joined the faculty as a lecturer in physics. Over the years he would serve as assistant professor of physics, associate professor of biophysics, and professor of biochemistry before becoming the American Cancer Society Professor of Molecular Biology. In addition to his academic career, he is also a co-founder of the biotech start-up companies Biogen and Myriad Genetics. A multi-faceted personality, he launched an artistic career centered on digital photography post his retirement.
- Walter Gilbert was born on March 21, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts, United States. His father, Richard V. Gilbert, was an economist who later worked for the Office of Price Administration during the Second World War.
- As a young boy he became a member of a minerological society and an astronomical society and it was while studying at the Sidwell Friends high school that he became interested in inorganic chemistry and nuclear physics.
- He proceeded to the Harvard University for undergraduate and graduate studies and earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics in 1953 and a master’s degree in physics in 1954. He joined the University of Cambridge for his doctorate and completed his Ph.D. in Physics, supervised by the Nobel laureate Abdus Salam, in 1957 .
- Walter Gilbert returned to Harvard and joined the faculty as a lecturer in physics in 1958 and was promoted to assistant professor of physics in 1959. Over the ensuing years he taught a wide range of courses in theoretical physics and worked with graduate students on problems in theory.
- During this period Gilbert’s wife began working for James Watson, a prominent molecular biologist, and Gilbert himself became interested in molecular biology. He too began working alongside Watson and the two men ran their laboratory jointly for several years.
- In 1964 Gilbert became associate professor of biophysics and promoted again in 1968 to professor of biochemistry. In 1974, he became American Cancer Society Professor of Molecular Biology at Harvard.
- During the late 1960s he successfully demonstrated the existence of a repressor in the bacterium Escherichia coli that prevents a gene from manufacturing a certain enzyme except when lactose is present.
- He performed vital research on RNA and DNA to develop a technique of using gel electrophoresis to read the nucleotide sequences of DNA segments. In collaboration with Allan Maxam, Gilbert also developed a new DNA sequencing method.
- In 1979, he joined a group of other scientists and businessmen to form Biogen, a commercial genetic-engineering research corporation. He was made the first chairman of the company’s board of directors. He resigned from Biogen in 1985.
- During the 1980s he was one of the early proponents of sequencing the human genome and supported the Human Genome Project, a government-funded effort to compile a complete map of the gene sequences in human DNA. He also proposed starting a company called Genome Corporation to sequence the genome and sell access to the information.
- A few years after his retirement from Harvard, he founded Myriad Genetics in 1992 and served as director and vice chairman of the board. He also helped to found Paratek Pharmaceuticals (1996) and Memory Pharmaceuticals (1998) , which was geared toward developing cures for central nervous system disorders.
- He is also a member of the Board of Scientific Governors at The Scripps Research Institute and has served as the chairman of the Harvard Society of Fellows.
- Walter Gilbert played a major role in the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids. Working along with Allan Maxam, Gilbert developed a new DNA sequencing method using chemical methods developed by Andrei Mirzabekov. He also developed a technique of using gel electrophoresis to read the nucleotide sequences of DNA segments.
- In 1979, Gilbert along with Frederick Sanger, was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. The same year he was also awarded the Gairdner Prize and the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research.
- Walter Gilbert and Frederick Sanger were jointly awarded one-half of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980 "for their contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids." The other half went to Paul Berg "for his fundamental studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids, with particular regard to recombinant-DNA."
- In 2002, he received the Biotechnology Heritage Award.
- He has been married to Celia Stone since 1953 and has two children.
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