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Marshall W. Nirenberg Papers 1937-2003 (bulk 1957-1997)
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Collection Scope and Content Note


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.

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