Childhood & Early Life
He was born on June 25, 1911, in New York City, in a Jewish family to Fred Michael Stein and his wife Beatrice Cecilla (Borg) as their second child among three.
His father was a businessman who took early retirement to dedicate into matters related to healthcare. His mother was a child rights activist. His elder brother Fred Micheal Stein, Jr. became a health advocate and younger sister Cecilia Borg Stein Cullman was a child rights activist like her mother.
He attended the ‘Lincoln School of Teachers College’ of ‘Columbia University’, a private co-educational university laboratory school in New York City from 1926 to 1927. The ideas and methods of the school were considered to be most progressive of that time.
Thereafter he joined ‘Phillips Exeter Academy’, a co-educational independent school, in Exeter, New Hampshire and studied there till 1929. He was inspired to take up fundamental science or medicine by his parents.
He then joined ‘Harvard University’ from where he completed BS in Chemistry in 1933.
In 1935 he completed MS in Chemistry from ‘Columbia University’.
He then earned PhD in 1938 from ‘Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons’, New York City, submitting a thesis on the amino acid analysis of elastin, a highly elastic protein.
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After completing his PhD he was inducted at the ‘Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research’ as a researcher in 1938 under renowned Jewish-German biochemist Max Bergmann. Here he had the opportunity to be associated with an outstanding group of researchers including Moore, Klaus Hofmann, Emil L. Smith and Joseph S. Fruton among others. It is at the Rockefeller that he conducted most of his significant research works.
He and Moore were delegated to chalk out precise analytical procedures to analyse amino acid composition of proteins. However the ‘Second World War’ interrupted their work on proteins when Moore was enlisted as a technical aid in the ‘National Defense Research Council’ in Washington in 1942. Moreover during wartime the entire research group of Bergmann was engrossed to work for the ‘Office of Scientific Research and Development’.
Following the death of Bergmann in 1944, the laboratory became devoid of a chief, although the research team carried on with their work.
Post war Moore returned to Rockefeller Institute after accepting an offer of the then Director Herbert Gasser who provided Stein and Moore with the liberty and space of conducting research work of their line of interest.
In 1952 he became Professor of Biochemistry at ‘Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research’ and served the post till 1965.
By such time Archer John Porter Martin and Richard Laurence Millington Synge came up with significant development of separating amino acids by applying paper chromatography in England.
Following suggestion of Synge, Stein and Moore endeavoured into separating amino acids on columns of potato starch, marking the beginning of their work on amino acids.
The duo became successful in separating out individual amino acids from a synthetic mixture, a work that was featured in the peer-reviewed scientific journal ‘Journal of Biological Chemistry’. They applied their procedures to analyse the structures of bovine serum albumin and β-lactoglobulin.
For over fifteen years he was associated with ‘Journal of Biological Chemistry’ first as a member of the editorial committee from 1955 to 1962. From 1958 to 1961 he remained the chairman of the committee following which he became a member of the editorial board of the journal in 1962. Thereafter he served as an associate editor from 1964 to 1968 and finally became the editor of the journal in 1968. He had to give up the position in 1971 due to illness.
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From 1957 to 1970 he remained a member of the Medical Advisory Board of ‘Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School’.
In 1958 he along with Moore developed the first automatic amino-acid analyzer that facilitated the analysis of amino acid sequences of proteins and this development also led to determine the composition of the enzyme ribonuclease.
In 1959 he along with Moore declared the first analysis of the entire amino acid sequence of ribonuclease. They also delved into examining the composition, function and association of several other proteins like pancreatic ribonuclease, ribonuclease T1, pepsin, chymotrypsin, pancreatic deoxyribonuclease and streptococcal proteinase.
They were financially aided for a period by the biomedical research facility, ‘National Institutes of Health’ (NIH) in their research work.
He was a member of the Council of the Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness of the ‘National Institutes of Health’ from 1961 to 1966.
From 1965 to 1982 he remained Professor of Biochemistry at the ‘Rockefeller University’.
His other academic endeavours included serving as visiting professor of ‘University of Chicago’ (1961), ‘Haverford College’ (1962), ‘Harvard University’ (1964), and ‘Washington University at St. Louis’ (1965).
During 1968-69 he served as Chairman of the U.S. National Committee for Biochemistry.
He was associated with several scientific societies including ‘American Society of Biological Chemists’, ‘American Academy of Arts and Sciences’, ‘American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’, ‘American Association for the Advancement of Science’, ‘National Academy of Sciences’, ‘Harvey Society’ of New York, ‘Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society’ and ‘Biochemical Society’ of London. Stein remained a Trustee of ‘Montefiore Hospital’.
He suffered from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare condition where the immune system of the body erringly attacks the peripheral nerves and causes damage to their myelin insulation. This condition resulted in his paralysis around 1971 thus limiting his scientific research career thereafter. His winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1972 made him the first quadriplegic Nobel Laureate.
The physical disorder made him wheelchair bound and the last stage of his life saw him visiting office occasionally till 1980.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1936 while undergoing his graduation studies he married Phoebe Hockstader. They were blessed with three sons - William H. Stein, Jr. born in 1937, David F. Stein born in 1939 and Robert J. Stein born in 1944.
On February 2, 1980, he succumbed to heart attack in New York City at 68 years of age. Stanford Moore, who worked with him for years, wrote his obituary for the ‘National Academy of Sciences’.