Skip Navigation Bar
Marshall W. Nirenberg Papers 1937-2003 (bulk 1957-1997)
full text File Size: K bytes | 

All Series Level Scope and Content Notes

Correspondence, experimental data, laboratory administration material, publications and manuscripts, photographs, research notes and notebooks, and audiovisual material (1937-2003 [bulk 1957-1997]; 171 linear feet) document Marshall W. Nirenberg's career as a researcher in biochemical genetics at the National Institutes of Health.

Series 3: Lab Administration and Series 4: Lab Research comprise the bulk of the collection. Together the materials in these series paint a comprehensive and detailed portrait of the laboratory's activities. Nirenberg became Head of the National Heart Institute's Section on Biochemical Genetics in 1962. The lab later became the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics (LBG) of the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute (NHBLI), with Nirenberg becoming its Chief and Research Biochemist, a position he has held since 1966. The collection contains a wealth of material regarding the supervision of the LBG, particularly in Series 3: Lab Administration. This series consists mainly of daily books, compiled by Nirenberg and his staff, which detail the everyday operations of the LBG; usually housed within three-ring binders, these volumes contain correspondence, research notes, various lists, conference programs, and other sundry materials received by the lab staff. Daily books exist from the late 1960s until the mid 1990s, providing a long-term view of the lab's operations. Similar materials are to be found in the General Files sub-series.

The collection also chronicles the LBG's shift in focus away from the study of the genetic code to that of neurobiology, reflecting Nirenberg's evolving research interests. The lab diaries, notes, notebooks, and photography within Series 4: Lab Research and the lab's annual reports in Series 3: Lab Administration detail these shifts, which began around 1966 and occurred every few years as Nirenberg explored new research avenues. Written works produced by the LBG also expanded, resulting in a large body of publications by LBG staff and a collection of reprints on various topics annotated by Nirenberg and his staff through the years. In Series 5: Writings, researchers can find these same works as manuscript drafts and reprints.

Best known for his Nobel Prize-winning work on the genetic code, Nirenberg began that career in 1957 when he took a position as a postdoctoral fellow in the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Diseases (NIAMDD). His work with J. Heinrich Matthaei to investigate the relationship between DNA and RNA and their successful cracking of the genetic code in 1961 is well documented by this collection. Nirenberg and Matthaei revealed the role of RNA to the world through an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1961 and again at the Fifth International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow a few months later. Series 5: Writings includes drafts and reprints of that article, while Series 2: Correspondence contains the dozens of reprint requests Nirenberg and Matthaei received from colleagues worldwide. In addition, Nirenberg's notes for the Moscow presentation are located in Series 6: Professional Activities, which also includes other speeches and presentations delivered by Nirenberg throughout his career. Series 4: Lab Research contains the early notebooks created by Nirenberg and colleagues during the genetic code experiments, as well as the original genetic code chart he and his staff compiled as they worked to decipher the code words which comprise the genetic language.

Nirenberg received the Nobel Prize in 1968 for his work on the genetic code. Materials related to this award, while scarce, do exist within the collection. Series 1: Personal and Biographical includes copies of the notification telegram Nirenberg received as well as drafts of his speech. This series also features articles and clippings regarding the experiments as well as the award. Researchers can find a few photographs and audiovisual recordings of the ensuing celebrations and the Nobel awards ceremony in the Photographs Series (VII) and the Audiovisual Series (VIII).

While the collection is strong in its documentation of Nirenberg's professional career, materials related to his personal life are relatively scarce. The Personal and Biographical Series contains a handful of Nirenberg biographies from Who's Who and other publications as well as his curriculum vitae from circa 1961 to 2000. That series also features over a dozen notebooks from Nirenberg's undergraduate and graduate school careers and copies of both his master's thesis and his Ph. D. dissertation. The Photographs Series (VII), while small, includes several personal photographs of Nirenberg with his family, friends and colleagues over the years, and Series 8: Audiovisual contains reminiscences of Nirenberg in the form of oral history interviews with Nirenberg and former postdoctoral researchers from his lab.


The Personal and Biographical Series documents personal aspects of Nirenberg's life, most particularly his secondary education and awards such as the Nobel Prize. The series also provides further insight into Nirenberg's professional life through curriculum vitae, articles, and newspaper clippings which chronicle his successful research into the genetic code and subsequent accolades.

The series is divided into six sub-series: Curriculum Vitae, Education and Coursework, The Nobel Prize, Other Awards and Honors, Articles and Clippings, and Personal Papers. The materials in each of the six sub-series are arranged chronologically. The largest of the sub-series, Education and Coursework, consists mostly of Nirenberg's notebooks from his coursework at the University of Florida and the University of Michigan. Divided into sub-sub-series by institution, these materials attest to Nirenberg's early interest in zoology. The sub-series also includes manuscript drafts for Nirenberg's master's and Ph.D. theses. In addition, the Personal Papers sub-series includes a notebook in which a young Nirenberg recorded some of his observations on the Floridian flora and fauna which sparked his scientific inquisitiveness.

The Nobel Prize sub-series includes drafts and notes for Nirenberg's Nobel Prize address as well as articles about the prize and copies of the telegram informing him of the award. Researchers can find photographs of Nirenberg receiving the news of the award and the awards ceremony in Series 7: Photographs, as well as images of the scientist with his family, friends, and colleagues. The collection does not include the actual award or certificates. Similarly, the Other Awards and Honors sub-series of Series 1 does not include the awards received by Nirenberg; the materials in this sub-series consist mainly of drafts of acceptance speeches, travel arrangements, correspondence, and the occasional article or event program documenting the occasion.


The Correspondence Series consists of mostly professional correspondence to Nirenberg. Throughout his tenure in the LBG, office practice was to file Nirenberg's correspondence into the lab's daily log books; these volumes are located in Series 3: Laboratory Administration, within the Daily Books sub-series. The letters within the Correspondence Series either were never filed by the lab secretaries, or were removed at some point and never re-filed. The series is organized into four sub-series: General, Invitations, Employment Opportunities, and Reprint Requests. Within each sub-series, the correspondence is arranged chronologically.

The General correspondence, spanning 1953-1993, encompasses a wide variety of work-related topics such as requests for cell lines and other cultures, professional conferences, and the research of Nirenberg and his peers, although the occasional personal note or card does appear. Included among these are letters from various socially-conscious organizations such as the Committee of Concerned Scientists asking Nirenberg for his support, particularly after he received the Nobel Prize in 1968. The Invitations sub-series includes offers of speaking engagements or tours, while inquiries regarding the availability of space in Nirenberg's lab comprise the majority of the Employment Opportunities sub-series. That sub-series also includes job offers to Nirenberg from other institutions, such as the offer in March 1962 from François Jacob of the Institut Pasteur. Requests for Nirenberg and Matthaei's seminal 1961 publication on their poly-U experiments, "The Dependence of Cell-Free Protein Synthesis in E. coli upon Naturally Occurring or Synthetic Polyribonucleotides," comprise the bulk of the Reprint Requests sub-series, attesting to the widespread interest generated by their presentation at the Moscow conference. Series 5: Writings includes drafts and reprints of the article, while Series 6: Professional Activities includes Nirenberg's notes and drafts for the 1961 poly-U presentation as well as memorabilia from the conference.


The Laboratory Administration Series provides insight into the daily workings of the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics throughout Nirenberg's tenure. These materials were generated by the LBG staff in the course of their everyday operations. They consist mainly of annual reports and daily log books, which contain correspondence, data, instructions from Nirenberg to the staff, invoices, journal lists, and other related materials. The series is organized into three sub-series: Annual Reports, Daily Books, and General Files.

The first sub-series, Annual Reports, contains overviews of lab activities for the year, including ongoing projects, with detailed descriptions of lab experiments. The evolution of each report is documented through various drafts as well as photocopied final products. Arranged chronologically, the annual reports are nearly complete for the years 1960-1993.

The Daily Books sub-series is the largest of the series. To keep track of activities and events pertaining to the lab, Nirenberg and his staff compiled "belts" (dictated messages from Nirenberg to lab secretaries), correspondence, events material, journal subscriptions, shared experimental data, lists of tasks to be performed, and similar materials into three-ring binders. Ranging in date from 1968 to 1997, these binders may span one month or several years. The daily books are numbered chronologically for the most part, but on two occasions the numbering restarted. Daily books which were not numbered have been marked with the notation [unnumbered].

Although the daily books contain mixed materials, the original order as compiled by lab personnel was retained to maintain their original context. For preservation purposes all materials were removed from the binders. Extraneous materials such as non-Nirenberg reprints, catalogs, blank ballots, and bibliographic search print-outs were deaccessioned. The following five volumes remain unaltered as examples of intact daily books: Mail 1 (1978 Jun-Jul), 151 (1981 Sep-Dec), 201 (1982 Nov-Dec), 342 (1986 Nov), and 442 (1990 Aug). The daily books are arranged chronologically by date, which correlates with the numerical sequencing.

The last sub-series, General Files, consists of materials which were never filed into the daily books or became separated through early attempts at processing. These files include the same types of materials as the daily books, as well as budget information, equipment inventories, lab redesign documentation, position descriptions, and work orders. The LBG facility underwent a move and major renovations between 1969 and 1971, documented here by blueprints and floor plans. Also of note are the position descriptions for the various personnel in the lab; however, the inclusion of sensitive information has resulted in restrictions to certain items. The General Files are arranged alphabetically by document type, and then chronologically.


The Lab Research series comprises the bulk of the collection and documents experiments conducted by Nirenberg and his LBG staff from 1957 to 2001. Included in the series are experiment data, graphs, lab diaries, lab notes and notebooks, manuscript materials, photographs and negatives, and machine print-outs. The materials are organized into three sub-series: Lab Diaries, Lab Notes and Notebooks, and Lab Photography. Each sub-series is arranged chronologically. When reviewed in conjunction with the annual reports in Series 3, these materials paint a detailed portrait of laboratory activities.

The first sub-series, Lab Diaries, consists mostly of hard-bound notebooks in which Nirenberg tracked the experiments being conducted by himself and his staff. The notebooks contain Nirenberg's instructions and ideas for experiments, tasks to do (and re-do), and requests for articles; many of the diaries also contain shared experimental data, particularly the earlier volumes from Nirenberg's postdoctoral period. In addition, the diaries from 1965 contain notes and ideas about the genetic code, written at a time when Nirenberg was shifting away from the code to neurobiology; as such, these volumes serve as summaries of his work to that point. Numbered sequentially, the diaries are nearly complete from 1957 to 1974, with only volumes 27 and 32 missing; an index compiled in 2000 is included at the end of the sub-series.

Nirenberg's research material, the most substantial portion of the collection, forms the Lab Notes and Notebooks sub-series. These notes, often assembled into 3-ring binders for easier access, contain experimental data by Nirenberg and his colleagues beginning with his postdoctoral work in DeWitt Stetten's lab at NIAMDD. A combination of original materials and annotated photocopies, the notes consist of experimental data in the form of graphs, charts, lists, and worksheets, and also include memoranda between Nirenberg and his research staff, supplemental articles, scraps of manuscripts, and ideas and thoughts about the work at hand. There are also volumes detailing solutions, methodologies, protocols, and cell inventories. Nearly one hundred different researchers are represented by the fifty years' worth of material, including Nirenberg's wife, Perola Zaltzman. The collection contains numerous notebooks by lab technicians Norma Heaton and Theresa Caryk, who worked with Nirenberg in the LBG for several decades.

The Lab Notes and Notebooks sub-series has been divided further into six sub-sub-series based upon the experimental focus of the lab: Undated, Genetic Code Experiments, Transition to Neurobiology, Effects of Morphine on the Nervous System, Neural Synapses in Chick Retina, and Homeobox Genes. Researchers should be aware of overlaps between each of the sub-sub-series, particularly in the different phases of the neurobiological studies. For ongoing experiments it was not unusual for more than one investigator to be involved, therefore many volumes contain notes by multiple investigators and can span several years. As such, the date ranges for each sub-sub-series reflect the dates of the materials, not of the actual period of experimentation.

For all six sub-sub-series, original folder titles were retained whenever possible; missing data which has been provided is denoted by square brackets [ ]. Materials within each sub-sub-series (except for the first, Undated) are arranged chronologically by the year in which they were begun and then alphabetically, first by investigator (when identified) and then by subject. Untitled or unidentified items are housed at the end of each year. Missing dates have been supplied whenever possible; any remaining undated materials have been placed within the first subseries, Undated.

Nirenberg's early experiments with Heinrich Matthaei on polu-U, as well as the work of the LBG to identify the sixty-four codons (or "code words," as they were first known), are documented through the notebooks in the Genetic Code Experiments sub-sub-series. In addition to volumes created by Nirenberg, the sub-sub-series includes experimental data from lab technicians Caryk and Heaton, postdoctoral fellows Bill Groves, Taysir Jaouni, Charles O'Neal, Sidney Pestka, and others who assisted with deciphering the code.

Two documents of particular note are the genetic code charts compiled by Nirenberg and staff between 1964 and 1966 as they identified the codons. The original chart is a makeshift one, formed from various pieces of graph paper taped together, with data entered in different colors by different hands. The vertical axis on the left side lists the sixty-four codons in sets of four, while the horizontal axis across the top displays the twenty amino acids; data from repeated experimentation, with other notations and highlights, were filled in over time. The accompanying hand-written note from Nirenberg claims that while this chart was the original, its cluttered appearance necessitated its replacement with a "longer (and neater)" version. The later version, crafted from photocopies taped together and annotated in the same style, is housed within an oversized folder. Negatives of both charts are housed within the regular collection. Due to its fragility and value, the original chart is housed permanently in the History of Medicine Division's Incunabula Room, and is available for viewing upon request.

Materials in the third sub-series, Lab Photography, also demonstrate the LBG's experimental progression. Beginning in the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, Nirenberg and the LBG researchers used cinemicrography, the photographing of objects by a microscope equipped with a motion picture camera, to document the work they were conducting on neuroblastoma and the neural synapses in chick retina. These experiments resulted in the hundreds of photographs and analyses which form the Lab Photography sub-series.


The Writings Series documents Nirenberg's body of published works, which over the course of his career has grown to nearly 200 articles and book chapters. These articles range in subject matter from ascites-tumor cells to the genetic code to neural synapses to, most recently, Homeobox genes. Nirenberg's curriculum vitae in Series 1: Personal and Biographical include bibliographies. Many of Nirenberg's articles were co-authored with his LBG postdoctoral colleagues; he also collected materials by his peers on related topics that were relevant to his work or of general interest to him. The series includes draft manuscripts, illustrations, negatives, photographs, reprints, and slides; it is divided into two sub-series: Unpublished Manuscripts and Reprints and Research Publications.

The first sub-series, Unpublished Manuscripts, is comprised of the draft versions of written works. The sub-series is further divided into four sub-sub-series: By Marshall Nirenberg, By Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics Personnel, Annotated by Marshall Nirenberg, and Illustrations. The first sub-sub-series contains the drafts of Nirenberg's articles, particularly the poly-U article and "The flow of information from gene to protein," written as a chapter on the genetic code in Aspects of Protein Biosynthesis, edited by Christian Anfinsen. Also of note are the drafts for the series of articles entitled "RNA Codewords and Protein Synthesis" which Nirenberg authored with various members of the LBG staff from 1964 to 1968. These drafts are arranged alphabetically by article title. While Nirenberg often recycled portions of his papers in his speeches and vice versa, this sub-sub-series only includes drafts of written works. Drafts of Nirenberg's Nobel Prize speech are located in Series 1: Personal and Biographical within the Nobel Prize sub-series. Other speeches and lectures can be found in Series 6: Professional Activities.

Nirenberg often served as editor for papers written by the LBG staff, even when he was not a co-author. Drafts of works independently written by LBG personnel are found in the second sub-sub-series, By Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics Personnel. These drafts often contain annotations, comments, and corrections by Nirenberg. The materials in the third sub-sub-series, Annotated by Nirenberg, also contain markings and commentary. Both of these sub-sub-series are arranged alphabetically by folder title. As each folder contains drafts of numerous articles, the folder title is derived from the first word of the first and last articles in each folder.

The Illustrations sub-sub-series contains drawings, negatives, photographs, and slides used by Nirenberg and the LBG staff for publications as well as for presentation slideshows. According to Nirenberg, the slides were numbered consecutively as they were made, and then reused over and over again, resulting in several series of numbered slides. Unlike the drafts, the slides used for speeches were the same as those used for publications, making them nearly indistinguishable; therefore all slides have been grouped together numerically. Whenever possible, implied titles have been provided for non-labeled illustrative materials and marked with square brackets [ ].


During the period of his genetic code experimentation, beginning with the poly-U announcement through the Nobel Prize, Nirenberg was in great demand, presenting at conferences and lecturing at scientific societies and institutions. The Professional Activities Series reflects this flurry of activity. It consists mainly of drafts and notes of lectures and presentations given by Nirenberg at various conferences, as well as notes taken by him; additional materials include articles and clippings, correspondence, and conference and event programs and posters. The series is arranged into three sub-series: Conferences and Symposia, Lectures and Talks, and Professional Organizations.

The first and largest sub-series, Conferences and Symposia, includes drafts of Nirenberg's talks at annual conferences such as the Gordon Research Conference, Neurosciences Research Program (NRP) meetings, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory symposia. Most noteworthy among these materials are the three folders regarding the Fifth International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow in October 1961, at which Nirenberg revealed his work with Matthaei on poly-U. These materials include drafts of his now-famous presentation and memorabilia collected during the trip, particularly pins depicting the icons of the U.S.S.R.

During this same period Nirenberg also was a featured speaker at such events as the Harvey Society lecture series and the Robbins Lectureship at Pomona College. Materials for such talks are found within the Lectures and Talks sub-series, although some presentations are represented only by a program, flyer, or newspaper clipping. Both the Conferences and Symposia sub-series and the Lectures and Talks sub-series are arranged chronologically; folders containing drafts of presentations are identified as such in square brackets after the folder title.

Once the fervor of cracking the genetic code dissipated and Nirenberg turned his attention to neurobiology, the demand for him as a featured speaker declined. Nonetheless, he remained a perpetual student, attending conferences as a non-speaker and participating in the NRP intensive study programs and work sessions. The Conferences and Symposia sub-series includes notes taken by Nirenberg on these occasions.

The final sub-series represents professional organizations in which Nirenberg participated and also organizations which were interested in having him as a member. These materials, which include annual reports, correspondence, newsletters, and programs, are arranged alphabetically by the name of the organization. Similar materials also can be found in the daily books within Series 3.


The collection contains only a few photographs. The majority of these are portraits of Nirenberg, taken particularly during the period between the announcement of the poly-U experiments and the Nobel Prize. Other subjects of note include a young Nirenberg with his parents and his sister Joan, circa 1932, and Nirenberg and his staff celebrating the news of the Nobel Prize. The photographs are organized into two sub-series, Personal and Professional, and are arranged chronologically. They have been grouped together by subject with implied dates provided. Photographs from lab experiments are found in the Lab Photography sub-series of Series 4: Lab Research.

The Prints and Photographs collection contains additional Nirenberg photographs; a list of these images has been appended to this finding aid. Nearly all of the images from both collections are available on Nirenberg's Profiles in Science exhibit.


The Audiovisual series is divided into two sub-series by format: Audio Recordings and Video Recordings. The recordings include a Nobel Prize celebration held in honor of Nirenberg in 1968, as well as several interviews with former colleagues conducted by Ruth R. Harris, Ph.D. Several of the video recordings feature symposia or similar engagements in honor of Nirenberg--in particular, a 2002 symposium at NIH in honor of Nirenberg and his work--as well as presentations made by Nirenberg through the years. The rolls of 16mm film document work on axon tips labeled "Pomerant," which possibly refers to B. H. Pomeranz.

The Historic Audiovisuals collection possesses additional materials relating to Nirenberg; a list of these items has been appended to this finding aid.