Professor Arthur Kornberg

Born 3rd March, 1918 (New York City, United States) - Died 26th October, 2007 (Stanford, United States)

In 1956 Kornberg isolated the first DNA polymerizing enzyme, now known as DNA polymerase, which he identified as the mechanism for DNA replication.

Arthur Kornberg in a laboratory


Arthur Kornberg was the youngest son of three boys born to Joseph and Lena (nee Katz) who married in 1904 and emigrated to Brooklyn New York in 1900 from Austrian Galicia (now part of Poland). Kornberg's father could speak at least six languages but had no formal education. He was a tailor who specialised in making cloaks. For almost 30 years Kornberg's father worked as a sewing machine operative in the sweat shops of the Lower East side of New York. Driven away from working in sweat shops due to poor health, Kornberg's father later opened a small hardware shop in Brooklyn. It was in this shop that Kornberg had his first taste of work. From the age of 9, he began regulary assisting and serving customers. This he did in between school work. Later Kornberg also worked in a men's clothing shop while attending college. The little that he earned was a vital supplement to the family's income which was hit hard by the Great Depression. In 1939 Kornberg's mother died from a spore infection after a routine gall bladder operation. This inspired Kornberg to have a lifelong fascination for spores. In 1946 Kornberg married Sylvy Ruth Levy, a biochemistry graduate whom he had met at the University of Rochester and became better acquainted with when Sylvy began working at the the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda. They had three sons Roger, Thomas and Kenneth. After 40 years of marriage Sylvy died from a rare neurological disorder. Following this Kornberg married Charlene Walsh Levering. He was to marry again after Charlene's death. His third wife was Caroline Frey Dixon. She survived him.


From early on Kornberg was a high achiever and he skipped several grades at primary school. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School at the age of 15. In 1933 he began studying at the City College of New York (CCNY) and graduated four years later with a BS in chemistry and biology. Kornberg briefly considered an academic career in the field, but given the hardships he and his family experienced as a result of the Great Depression decided medicine would provide a better livelihood. In 1937 Kornberg was accepted to study medicine at the University of Rochester. He was one of only five students out of 200 CCNY premedical students to gain acceptance to medical school that year. Kornberg was awarded an MD in 1941. Kornberg completed his medical training in 1942 having spent a year as an intern at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York.


Following his internship, Kornberg served as a navy doctor on a US Coast Guard vessel in the Caribbean. This he did as part of his World War II military service. Expecting to remain on duty at sea for the duration of the war, Kornberg's career took an unexpected turn in 1942 when Robert Dyer, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, came across an article Kornberg had written while a medical student. In the article Kornberg outlined some findings he had made as a result of measuring bilirubin levels in his and fellow students' blood. Kornberg had in part been inspired to conduct the project because he suffered from mild jaundice. His research indicated that high levels of bilirubin frequently occurred as a result of a reduced capacity to excrete it, a syndrome now recognised as a benign familial trait called Gilbert's disease. Dyer was particularly interested in Kornberg's findings because he was trying to understand an outbreak of jaundice among service members who had been inoculated with the new yellow fever vaccine. Impressed by Kornberg's article, Dyer arranged for Kornberg's transfer to the NIH. Once at NIH Kornberg did not pursue jaundice as a research topic and instead began investigating rats rats who appeared to developl folic acid deficiency after receiving sulpha drugs. Bored by the feeding of rats, Kornberg soon developed an interest in enzymes, and in 1946 moved to Severo Ochao's laboratory at New York University Medical School where he speant a year learning techniques for enzyme purification. This he did while taking summer courses at Columbia University to boost his knowledge of organic and physical chemistry. Following this, he spent 6 months in the laboratory of Carl and Gerri Cori at Washington University in St Louis to enhance his biochemical skills. From 1947 to 1953 Kornberg became chief of the Enzyme Section within the Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases at NIH. During these years he became particularly adept at identifying and purifying enzymes and discovered several enzymes instrumental to metabolic respiration cycles. Such work helped awaken his desire to find enzymes that help assemble DNA. Between 1953 and 1959 Kornberg headed the Department of Microbiology at Washington University in St Louis. In 1959 he became chair of the new biochemistry department at Stanford University School of Medicine. On moving to the department Kornberg took many of his Washington University faculty and staff and built a tight-knit research group around identifying and delineating the workings of various enzymes involved in DNA replication. He continued conducting full-time research at the department into his eighties. In addition to his academic work, Kornberg helped found the DNAX Institute Molecular and Cellular Biology in 1980.


Kornberg is most well known for his discovery and purification of DNA polymerase from Escherichia coli, an enzyme that he and his colleagues demonstrated was instrumental in the synthesis of DNA. Published in 1956, this work established for the first time that DNA replication was driven by an enzyme. Kornberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1959 for this achievement. Subsequently Kornberg and his colleagues discovered enzymes responsible for DNA repair and rearrangement and others responsible for the start and elongation of DNA chains and chromosomes. This opened the avenue to manipulating DNA, thereby paving the way to the development of recombinant DNA technology and the engineering of genes and chromosomes. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Kornberg was awarded the Paul-Lewis Award in Enzyme Chemistry (1951), the National Medal of Science (1979) and the Gairdner Foundation Award (1995). He was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1957 and the Royal Society of London in 1970.

Arthur Kornberg: timeline of key events

Kornberg was a biochemist renowned for his research on enzymes which create DNA. In 1956 he and his team isolated the first enzyme known to be involved in the replication of DNA. It would be called DNA polymerase I. For this work Kornberg shared the 1959 Nobel Prize for Medicine. The Prize was given for the discovery of the 'mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid.'1918-03-03T00:00:00+0000E Polack, 'Chronic hepatitis in young persons, with or without intermittent jaundice', Acta Med Scand, 93 (1937), 14-22; A Kornberg, 'Latent liver disease in persons recovered from catarrhal jaundice and in otherwise normal medical students as revealed by the bilirubin excretion test', Journal Clinical Investigation, 21 (1941), 299-308.1937-12-31T00:00:00+0000Kornberg is a biochemist whose research is focused on working out the mechanism and regulation of transcription, which is the first step in the pathway of gene expression. In 2006 he won the Nobel Prize for working out the protein pathway that a cell's genetic information takes when transferred to a new cell. He showed how information is carried from the genes and converted to molecules called messenger ribonucleic acid (RNA). This he worked out by mapping out the process in yeast. Kornberg was the first to work out how transcription works at a molecular level in eukaryotes, a group of organisms, including humans, whose cells have a well-defined nucleus. 1947-04-24T00:00:00+0000The enzyme was first discovered in the bacterial species Escherichia Coli. Its isolation paved the way to understanding how DNA is replicated, repaired and transcribed and the development of recombinant DNA. A collective group of scientists made the discovery: Arthur Kornberg, Maurice Bessman, Ernie Simms, I R Lehman.1955-12-01T00:00:00+0000The preliminary finding was announced at the annual meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. It was achieved by Arthur Kornberg, an American biochemist, and his colleagues while studying Escherichia coli, a type of bacteria. The discovery that DNA polymerase, an enzyme, could replicate DNA was a major breakthrough because up to this point most scientists believed it was not possible for scientists to duplicate the genetic specificity that is required for DNA replication outside of an intact cell. Kornberg's work opened the way to the discovery of many other similar enzymes and the development of recombinant DNA. The work was published in A Kornberg, I R Lehman, E S Simms, 'Polydesoxyribonucleotide synthesis by enzymes from Escherichia coli', Fed Proc 15 (1956), 291.1956-04-16T00:00:00+0000The feat was achieved by Arthur Kornberg. He published his experiment in the Journal of Biological Chemsitry in May 1958.1957-10-01T00:00:00+0000Mehran Goulian and Arthur Kornberg managed to assemble the genome using one strand of natural antiviral DNA. The two scientists announced their achievement to a press conference as part of an effort to increase the American public's appreciation of government funded scientific work. It, however, generated debate about whether life should be created in a test tube. The achievement was an important stepping stone to the development of recombinant DNA. 1967-12-14T00:00:00+0000Kornberg was an American biochemist renowned for his research on enzymes which create DNA. In 1956 he and his team isolated the first enzyme known to be involved in the replication of DNA. It would be called DNA polymerase I. For this work Kornberg shared the 1959 Nobel Prize for Medicine. The Prize was given for the discovery of the 'mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid.'2007-10-26T00:00:00+0000
Date Event People Places
3 Mar 1918Arthur Kornberg was born in Brooklyn NY, USAKornbergStanford University
1937 - 1937Persistent hepatic inflammation detected in patients who otherwise appeared to recover from jaundicePolack, Kornberg 
24 Apr 1947Roger D Kornberg was born in St. Louis, MO, USAKornbergStanford University
December 1955First discovery of the enzyme DNA polymeraseKornberg, Bessman, Simms, LehmanWashington University in St. Louis
16 Apr 1956DNA polymerase isolated and purified and shown to replicate DNAKornberg, Bessman, Simms, LehmanWashington University in St. Louis
October 1957First synthesis of DNA in a test tubeKornbergWashington University in St. Louis
14 Dec 1967Functional, 5,000-nucleotide-long bacteriophage genome assembledGoulian, KornbergStanford University, Chicao University
26 Oct 2007Arthur Kornberg diedKornbergStanford University

3 Mar 1918

Arthur Kornberg was born in Brooklyn NY, USA

1937 - 1941

Persistent hepatic inflammation detected in patients who otherwise appeared to recover from jaundice

24 Apr 1947

Roger D Kornberg was born in St. Louis, MO, USA

Dec 1955

First discovery of the enzyme DNA polymerase

16 Apr 1956

DNA polymerase isolated and purified and shown to replicate DNA

Oct 1957

First synthesis of DNA in a test tube

14 Dec 1967

Functional, 5,000-nucleotide-long bacteriophage genome assembled

26 Oct 2007

Arthur Kornberg died

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