Arthur Kornberg, 89; Scientist Earned Nobel Prize for DNA Work

Monday, October 29, 2007

Arthur Kornberg, 89, whose test-tube synthesis of DNA earned him the Nobel Prize in 1959, died of respiratory failure Oct. 26 at Stanford Hospital at Stanford University in California. He was 89.

Dr. Kornberg shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Severo Ochoa of New York University for discovering the enzymes that create the genetic building blocks of DNA and RNA, the chemical blueprints of heredity.

Dr. Kornberg discovered the chemical mechanism, called DNA polymerase, that demonstrated how DNA is constructed in the cell. Ochoa did work on RNA. Their studies served as a precursor to genetic engineering and have provided the basis for many drugs used to treat cancer and viral infections.

"Dr. Kornberg was one of the most distinguished and remarkable scientists in American medicine," Philip Pizzo, dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, said in a statement. "His towering contributions have continued virtually up until the time of his death."

Dr. Kornberg, who remained an active professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford's School of Medicine until his death, often referred to his career as "a love affair with enzymes."

That love was passed on to his son, Roger Kornberg, also a professor at Stanford, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work studying the enzymes that create RNA. They were the sixth father-son combination to win the prize. Both Kornbergs attended the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm last December.

Dr. Kornberg was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and received a bachelor's degree in chemistry and biology from the City College of New York. He earned a medical degree from the University of Rochester in 1941.

He worked for the U.S. Public Health Service and served as a Navy doctor before doing research at the National Institutes of Health from 1942 to 1953. He directed the enzyme and metabolism section of the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases before moving to St. Louis to become chairman of the microbiology department of the Washington University School of Medicine.

He became chairman of a new biochemistry department at Stanford in 1959. He officially retired in 1988 but continued to run a laboratory at the university until weeks before his death.

He wrote several books, including a scientific memoir, "For the Love of Enzymes: The Odyssey of a Biochemist" in 1989 and "The Golden Helix: Inside Biotech Ventures" in 1995. His latest, a children's book to be published in November, is "Germ Stories."

His wife of 43 years, Sylvy Ruth Kornberg, who assisted in his laboratory, died in 1986.

His second wife, Charlene W. Kornberg, died in 1995.

In addition to his son, survivors include two other sons, Thomas Kornberg, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco; and Kenneth Kornberg, founder of a California architectural company specializing in laboratory design.

-- News Service and Staff Reports

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