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NIH scientist Marshall Nirenberg dies; deciphered code

NIH geneticist Marshall W. Nirenberg was the first federal employee to win a Nobel in physiology or medicine.
NIH geneticist Marshall W. Nirenberg was the first federal employee to win a Nobel in physiology or medicine. (Nih - Nih)
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Born April 10, 1927, in New York, Marshall Warren Nirenberg moved with his family to Orlando in 1941 after he developed rheumatic fever. He graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in zoology and chemistry. He received his doctorate in biological chemistry at the University of Michigan in 1957. He immediately joined NIH as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, now the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

He spent his career at NIH, telling the New York Times in 1987: "I have been tempted to leave but I always ask myself, could I do better work someplace else, and I don't think I could. The salary here is relatively low, but the advantage to N.I.H. is that you can use your time completely for research without the distraction of teaching or committee work.''

Colleagues described Dr. Nirenberg as enthusiastic about the work of others and highly collegial. His Nobel banquet speech shared credit with those who collaborated and competed: "One individual alone creates only a note or so that blends with those produced by others. The advances that have been described here today are due to the efforts of investigators throughout the world."

Researchers who worked under him became scientific leaders in labs around the world, including two who earned their own Nobel Prizes.

Dr. Nirenberg continued to make significant discoveries in neurobiology and genetics, from pioneering work in culturing neural cells to studying gene expression, stem cell differentiation and nervous system development. In the 1980s, Dr. Nirenberg and an associate discovered a fruit fly gene that is essential for normal heart development, which is helping clinicians understand congenital heart disease. Most recently, he made innovations in small-molecule screening for applications in addiction, memory, and heart and blood disorders.

Among his awards were the National Medal of Science in 1966 and the National Medal of Honor in 1968.

His wife of 40 years, Perola Zaltzman Nirenberg, died in 2001.

Survivors include his wife of four years, Myrna M. Weissman of New York and Potomac; four stepchildren, Susan Weissman of Evanston, Ill., Judith Weissman of New York, Sharon Weissman of New Haven, Conn., and Jonathan Weissman of San Francisco; a sister; and seven grandchildren.


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