Skip Navigation Bar
Sol Spiegelman Papers 1929-1983
search terms in context | full text File Size: 589 K bytes | Add this to my bookbag


Biographical Note

Sol Spiegelman was born on December 14, 1914 in Brooklyn, New York, to Max Spiegelman, a teacher of oriental languages and religion at a Hebrew theological seminary, and his wife Eva. A prolific and dedicated researcher, Sol Spiegelman made several important contributions in the fields of microbial genetics and cancer research.

Spiegelman took an interest in biology at an early age. In 1933 he attended the College of the City of New York (CCNY) majoring in biology; however, he found his biology courses so disappointing he changed his major and spent most of his undergraduate years studying mathematics and physics. Spiegleman took a year off from college to accept a research position at the Richard Morton Koster Research Laboratory of Crown Heights Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. During his tenure at the research laboratory he published his first paper entitled, "A Rapid Method for the Study of Genetics in Large Populations." After returning to CCNY and completing his degree, Spiegelman began his graduate education at Columbia University under the direction of Dr. H. B. Steinbach, majoring in cellular physiology with a minor in mathematics. He followed Dr. Steinbach to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he continued to pursue his Ph.D. Upon completion of his doctorate in 1944, Spiegelman stayed on at Washington University and began his teaching career, gaining a reputation as a charming and skilled lecturer of bacteriology. He wrote prolifically and produced nineteen articles by the time he received his Ph. D. from Washington University.

After earning his Ph.D., Spiegelman began investigating how cells formed their enzymes. He and his colleagues demonstrated that changes or alterations in enzymes could occur without an accompanying mutation in the genes that control them. Based on this, Spiegelman suggested that abnormalities in enzymes occurred when critical fractions of genes were inappropriately activated or deactivated. Today this phenomenon is known as switching a gene on or off, and has had serious implications in the fight against cancer. Spiegelman's data raised the possibility that the wild multiplication of cells which characterized cancer might be attributed to an (uncontrollable or unruly) mechanism rather than a genetic mutation.

In 1949, Spiegelman became Professor of Microbiology at the University of Illinois. It was there in the mid-1950s that he discovered the technique of RNA/DNA hybridization, which enabled the combination of viral DNA and viral RNA. This new method led to the discovery that only one strand of a DNA double helix was responsible for transmitting genetic information. RNA/DNA hybridization became an extremely important technology in the field of molecular biology, and is a powerful tool in the modern analyses of the genome.

Until the mid-1960s, the central dogma of microbiology held that genetic information could only be transferred from DNA to RNA in the course of cellular reproduction; transference in the opposite direction was considered impossible. This raised questions concerning how RNA viruses are able to reproduce in cells dominated by DNA. Spiegelman's investigations into this quandary led to his discovery in 1963 of an enzyme which could recognize viral RNA among all other bacterial RNA within a cell. The unique quality exhibited by the newly discovered enzyme came to be known as template specificity. Spiegelman was soon able to use the RNA replicating enzyme, or RNA replicase, to manufacture RNA in test tubes. The man-made RNA proved to be as potent and infectious as its naturally-occurring counterpart. Spiegelman's work with RNA replicase made it possible to observe Darwinian selection at the molecular level, and expanded the biological community's understanding of viruses in general.

In 1969 Spiegelman left the University of Illinois to join the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, New York, where he served as a Professor of Human Genetics and Development and as the Director of the Institute of Cancer Research. This move reflected Spiegelman's decision to focus his investigations fully on the problem of cancer. During the course of his RNA experiments he developed a technique that made it possible to test cancerous tissue for the presence of a virus; this laid the groundwork for his attempts to isolate a link between cancer and viral infections. Spiegelman demonstrated that RNA in a virus known to cause mammary tumors in mice was similar to sequences found in human breast cancer, which fueled his efforts to develop a clinically useful test for breast cancer in humans. In 1974 his career research was awarded the top American prize, the Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research.

Columbia honored Spiegelman by naming him University Professor in 1975, and made him Director of its Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1980. He was still actively involved in cancer research at Columbia when he died on January 20, 1983.

Brief Chronology

1914 Born December 14 in New York City to Max and Eva Spiegelman
1933-39Attends City College of New York, with major in mathematics and physics
1936-37Interrupts undergraduate schooling to accept a research position at the Richard Morton Koster Research Laboratory, Crown Heights Hospital, in Brooklyn, New York; publishes first paper
1940-42Attends graduate school at Columbia University with a major in cellular physiology and a minor in mathematics, under Dr. H. B. Steinbach
1942-44Completes Ph.D. at Washington University at St. Louis; also lectured in Physics and Applied Mathematics
1945-46Instructor in Bacteriology, Washington University School of Medicine
1946-48Assistant Professor in Bacteriology, Washington University School of Medicine
1948-49Special Fellow, U.S. Public Health Service, University of Minnesota
1949-69Professor of Microbiology, University of Illinois
1964-69Member of Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois
1965Elected to the National Academy of Sciences
1966Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1969Director of the Institute of Cancer Research and Professor of Human Genetics and Development in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University
1974Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research
1975University Professor, Columbia University
1980Director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University.
1983Dies January 21 following a short illness