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Marshall W. Nirenberg Papers 1937-2003 (bulk 1957-1997)
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Biographical Note

Marshall Warren Nirenberg was born in New York City on April 10, 1927, to Harry and Minerva (Bykowsky) Nirenberg. In 1941, young Marshall developed rheumatic fever, so the Nirenberg family moved to Orlando, Florida to take advantage of the subtropical climate. Surrounded by "a natural paradise," during his teens Nirenberg developed a scientific and aesthetic appreciation for the natural world and became an adept observer of plant life, insects, and birds. He captured these observations through carefully written and maintained notes; these sketches and notes presaged a career in which scientific diaries filled with thorough documentation provided a constant source of inspiration for research and analysis.

In 1945, Nirenberg graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Florida in Gainesville, earning his B.S. degree in zoology and chemistry in 1948. In 1950, he resumed his studies at Florida and took a M.S. degree in zoology in 1952, writing a master's thesis on caddis flies. Later that year, Nirenberg moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan. He earned a Ph.D. in biological chemistry in 1957 by writing a dissertation on the uptake of hexose, a type of sugar, by tumor cells. This work served as the basis of his first published article and shaped the direction of his initial studies after graduate school. Later that year, the American Cancer Society awarded Nirenberg a two-year postdoctoral fellowship to the laboratory of DeWitt Stetten Jr. at the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Diseases (NIAMDD), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. He continued his work as a postdoctoral fellow of the Public Health Service's Section on Metabolic Enzymes at NIAMDD before joining the staff as a research biochemist in 1960.

In 1959, Nirenberg began his investigations into the relationship between deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), ribonucleic acid (RNA) and the production of proteins. With J. Heinrich Matthaei, a young postdoctoral researcher from Bonn, Germany, he initiated a series of experiments using synthetic RNA. These two researchers were able to show how RNA transmits the "messages" that are encoded in DNA and direct how amino acids combine to make proteins. These experiments became the foundation of Nirenberg's groundbreaking work on the genetic code, which he first made public at the International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow in August 1961. By early 1962, the significance of these early experiments was recognized throughout the world, after the popular media highlighted the importance of their work as a major scientific breakthrough. As a result, less than one year after he had first announced his successful experiment with synthetic RNA, Nirenberg received the Molecular Biology Award from the National Academy of Sciences.

During this same period, Nirenberg was offered professorships at a number of major universities across the United States. He also was offered a research position with Francois Jacob--who would become the 1965 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine--at the Institut Pasteur, one of the world's leading centers of molecular genetics. Nirenberg, however, declined all offers and chose to stay at the National Institutes of Health, believing that a steady annual research budget would enable him to remain devoted to his work rather than spend his time pursuing outside grants. In 1962, he was appointed Chief of the Section on Biochemical Genetics at the NIH's National Heart Institute (NHI).

After Matthaei's departure from the NIH in 1962, Nirenberg continued his work on the genetic code with a team of postdoctoral fellows and research technicians. By 1966, Nirenberg had deciphered all the RNA "codons"--the term used to describe the "code words" of messenger RNA--for all twenty major amino acids. Two years later, in 1968, Nirenberg received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis." He shared the award with Robert W. Holley of Cornell University and Har Gobind Khorana of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Despite his successes, by the time he won the Nobel Prize Nirenberg had turned from research on the genetic code to the field of neurobiology. He chose neurobiology because it is the only other biological system besides the genetic code that is designed for information processing. DNA processes genetic information, and the brain processes mental information. The new scientific arena gave him the freedom to ask new questions, solve new problems, and explore new biological puzzles. Nirenberg would devote the next thirty years of his scientific career to the investigation of various aspects of neurobiology, including neural cell receptors and Homeobox genes.

Dr. Nirenberg has been honored for his work by many prestigious scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Gairdner Foundation, and the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Nirenberg the National Medal of Science in 1966 and the National Medal of Honor in 1968. He is an active member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a part of the Vatican. Since 1966 Nirenberg has maintained his current position as Senior Research Biochemist and Chief of the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics at the NHI, later named the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. He also serves as a research professor in molecular and cell biology at the University of Maryland at College Park, and as an adjunct professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at The George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. In 2001, Dr. Nirenberg was elected to the American Philosophical Society.

Brief Chronology

1927Born Marshall Warren Nirenberg in New York, New York (April 10)
1941Nirenberg family moved to Orlando, Florida
1948Received B.S. (Zoology and Chemistry), University of Florida at Gainesville
1952Received M.S. (Zoology), University of Florida
1957Received Ph.D. (Biological Chemistry), University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
1957-59American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellow, National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolic, and Digestive Diseases [NIAMDD, later NIDDK], National Institutes of Health [NIH]
1959-60Public Health Service Postdoctoral Fellow, NIAMDD; began examining the relationship between DNA, RNA, and protein production
1960-62Research Biochemist, NIAMDD; began poly-U experiments with Heinrich Matthaei
1961Married Perola Zaltzman (d. 2001) in July
1961Described the poly-U experiment at Fifth International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow in August, related article published in October
1962Molecular Biology Award, National Academy of Sciences
1962-66Chief, Section on Biochemical Genetics, National Heart Institute [NHI], NIH
1963-66Completed sequencing of RNA "code words" for twenty amino acids
1965-69Turned attention and laboratory over to field of neurobiology
1966Senior Research Biochemist and Chief, Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics, NHI
1967Began studying the neuroblastoma system
1968Shared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for deciphering the genetic code with Robert W. Holley and Har Gobind Khorana
1968Awarded National Medal of Science by President Lyndon B. Johnson
1969Published first article on neurobiology in collaboration with Philip Nelson
1973Began studying the effects of morphine on the nervous system in collaboration with Werner Klee
1976Began work on neural cell receptors using chick retina
1987Began study of Homeobox genes in Drosophila fruit fly
2001Elected to American Philosophical Society
2002Symposium honoring Nirenberg held at NIH


1962Award in the Biological Sciences, Washington Academy of Sciences
1963Molecular Biology Award, National Academy of Sciences
1964Medal, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
Harrison Howe Award, American Chemical Society
Paul-Lewis Award in Enzyme Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1965John Young Award, Florida
National Medal of Science, President Lyndon B. Johnson
1966Hildebrand Award, American Chemical Society
Research Corporation Award
1967American College of Physicians Award
Gairdner Foundation Award, Canada
Prix Charles Leopold Mayer, French Academy of Sciences
1968Distinguished Service Medal, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
Franklin Medal, Franklin Institute
Joseph Priestley Award, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania
Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research
Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, Columbia University
National Medal of Honor, President Lyndon B. Johnson
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (shared with Robert W. Holley and Har Gobind Khorana)
1975City of Peace Award
1981George Cotzias Memorial Award Lecture, American Society of Neurology
1983A. Ross McIntyre Award, University of Nebraska College of Medicine

Honorary Degrees

1965University of Chicago
University of Michigan
Yale University
1966University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada)
1967University of Pennsylvania
1968Harvard University
1969University of Florida
1972George Washington University
1973University of Pavia (Italy)
1978Weizmann Institute (Israel)
1986State University of New York at Albany
1991West Virginia State College
1996Union University, Albany College of Pharmacy

Editorial Appointments

  • Analytical Biochemistry
  • Annual Review of Biochemistry
  • Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology
  • Journal of Neurogenetics
  • Korean Journal of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
  • Molecular Neurobiology


  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • American Chemical Society
  • American Institute of Chemists
  • American Neurochemistry Society
  • American Neurological Association
  • American Philosophical Society
  • American Society of Biological Chemistry
  • American Society of Biological Chemists
  • Biophysical Society
  • European Academy of Sciences and Arts
  • Federation of American Scientists
  • Harvey Society
  • International Society for Neuroimmunomodulation
  • National Academy of Medicine
  • National Academy of Sciences
  • Pontifical Academy of Sciences
  • Sigma Xi
  • Society for Developmental Biology
  • Society for Neuroscience
  • Washington Academy of Sciences