Arthur Kornberg (born March 3, 1918) is an American biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1959 for his discovery of "the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)" together with Dr. Severo Ochoa of New York University. He has also been awarded the Paul-Lewis Laboratories Award in Enzyme Chemistry from the American Chemical Society in 1951, L.H.D. degree from Yeshiva University in 1962, as well as National Medal of Science in 1979.
His primary research interests have been in biochemistry, especially enzyme chemistry, the synthesis of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and studying the nucleic acids which control heredity in animals, plants, bacteria and viruses.
Born in New York City he was the son of Joseph and Lena Kornberg. His parents emigrated to New York from Austrian Galicia (now part of Poland) in 1900 before they were married. His paternal grandfather had changed the family name from Queller (also spelled Kweller) to avoid the draft by taking on the identity of someone who had already completed military service. Joseph married Lena Katz in 1904. He worked as a sewing machine operator in the sweat shops of the Lower East side of New York for almost 30 years, and when his health failed, opened a small hardware store in Brooklyn, where Arthur assisted customers at the age of nine. Joseph spoke at least six languages although he had no formal education.
Arthur Kornberg was educated first at Abraham Lincoln High School and then at City College in New York City. He received at B. Sc. in 1937, followed by an M.D. at the University of Rochester in 1941. Kornberg has an elevated level of bilirubin in his blood—a mild jaundice known as Gilbert's syndrome—and while at medical school he took a survey of fellow students to discover how common the condition was. The results were published in Kornberg's first research paper, in 1942.
His internship was with Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York, between 1941-1942. After completing his medical training he joined the armed services as a Lieutenant in the United States Coast Guard, serving as a ship's doctor in 1942. Rolla Dyer, the Director of National Institutes of Health, had noticed his paper and invited him to join the research team at the Nutrition Laboratory of the NIH. From 1942-1945, Kornberg's work was the feeding of specialised diets to rats to discover new vitamins.
The feeding of rats was boring work, and Kornberg became fascinated by enzymes. He transferred to Dr Severo Ochoa's laboratory at New York University in 1946, and took summer courses at Columbia University to fill out the gaps in his knowledge of organic and physical chemistry while learning the techniques of enzyme purification at work. He became Chief of the Enzyme and Metabolism Section at NIH from 1947-1953, working on understanding of ATP production from NAD and NADP. This led to his work on how DNA is built up from simpler molecules.
In 1953 he became Professor and Head of the Department of Microbiology, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., until 1959. Here he continued experimenting with the enzymes which created DNA. In 1956 he isolated the first DNA polymerising enzyme, now known as DNA polymerase I . This won him the Nobel prize in 1959.
In 1960 he received a LL.D. again from City College, followed by a D.Sc. at the University of Rochester in 1962. He has been Professor and Executive Head of the Department of Biochemistry, Stanford University, Stanford since 1959.
Kornberg's mother died of gas gangrene from a spore infection after a routine gall bladder operation in 1939. This started a lifelong fascination with spores, and he devoted some of his research efforts to understanding them while at Washington University. From 1962 to 1970, in the midst of his work on DNA synthesis, Kornberg devoted half his research effort to determining how DNA is stored in the spore, what replication mechanisms are included, and how the spore generates a new cell. This was an unfashionable but complex area of science, and although some progress was made, eventually Kornberg abandoned this research.
The Arthur Kornberg Medical Research Building at the University of Rochester Medical Center was named in his honor in 1999.
As of 2006, Kornberg still maintains an active research laboratory at Stanford, and regularly publishes peer reviewed scientific papers. For several years the focus of his research has been the metabolism of inorganic polyphosphate.
The "Kornberg school" of biochemistry refers to Arthur Kornberg's many graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, i.e., his intellectual children, and the trainees of his trainees, i.e., his intellectual grandchildren. Kornberg's intellectual children include I. Robert Lehman, Randy Schekman, William T. Wickner and Ken-ichi Arai.
Kornberg married Sylvy Ruth Levy, also a biochemist of note, on November 21, 1943. She worked closely with Kornberg and contributed significantly to the discovery of DNA polymerase. The day after he was awarded the Nobel prize, she was quoted in a newspaper as saying "I was robbed".
They had three sons: Roger David Kornberg (1947) (currently Professor of Structural Biology at Stanford University, and the 2006 laureate of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry), Thomas B. Kornberg (1948) (who discovered DNA polymerase II and III in 1970 and is now a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco), and Kenneth Andrew Kornberg (1950) (an architect specialising in the design of biomedical and biotechnology laboratories and buildings).
Sylvy died in 1986. Arthur Kornberg married Charlene Walsh Levering in 1988. Charlene died in 1995 and Arthur married Carolyn Dixon in December of 1998. He still works in the Stanford University Biochemistry Department several days a week, even though he is in his eighties.
- Nicole Kresge, Robert D. Simoni, Robert L. Hill (2005). Arthur Kornberg's Discovery of DNA Polymerase I. J. Biol. Chem. 280, 46. free fulltext
- For the Love of Enzymes: The Odyssey of a Biochemist. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1989, ISBN 0-674-30776-3
- The Golden Helix: Inside Biotech Ventures. University Science Books, 2002, ISBN 1-891389-19-X