Johns Hopkins University News Release

Nobel Laureate Christian Anfinsen Dies

Christian Boemer Anfinsen, winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize in chemistry and a Johns Hopkins University biochemist, died Sunday, May 14, of an apparent heart attack suffered at his home in the Baltimore suburb of Pikesville. He was pronounced dead at Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown. He was 79.

Dr. Anfinsen was a professor of biology at Hopkins, joining the faculty in 1982. He won the Nobel Prize while chief of the laboratory of chemical biology at what is now known as the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism and Digestive Diseases.

He shared the Nobel with Rockefeller University scientists Stanford Moore and William H. Stein; they were honored for their clarification of the relationship between the structural properties of proteins and their biological functions. Specifically, Dr. Anfinsen helped to discover how the protein enzyme ribonuclease folds to obtain the characteristic three- dimensional structure that determines its function.

"Dr. Anfinsen was a true pioneer in the field of protein structure and protein folding," said Daniel Nathans, a Nobel Prize-winning physician and molecular biologist at Hopkins who will become the university's interim president June 1. "His work is the prototype for the many studies that have followed, and the work still being done in this area."

Dr. Anfinsen recently attended a lecture by another Hopkins faculty member on research following up on the protein-folding question; he was described by another member of the audience as smiling broadly and "so excited" to see the work now being done in the area.

In recent years, Dr. Anfinsen had been involved with the study of bacteria found in vents along the edges of the tectonic plates in the Mediterranean and Pacific ocean floors. Dr. Anfinsen believed these bacteria, which are capable of living at very high temperatures, may prove useful in deactivating and disposing of toxic materials, such as chemical weapons. A native of Monessen, Pa., Dr. Anfinsen earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1937 from Swarthmore College and his master's degree in organic chemistry in 1939 from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1943, he received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard Medical School, where he was an instructor and assistant professor of biological chemistry from 1943 to 1950. While at Harvard, he spent a year as senior fellow of the American Cancer Society, working with Hugo Theorell at the Medical Nobel Institute in Sweden.

Dr. Anfinsen joined the National Institutes of Health in 1950 as chief of the Laboratory of Cellular Physiology and Metabolism in the National Heart Institute. From 1963 to 1981, he was chief of the Laboratory of Chemical Biology in the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases. Upon retirement from NIH in 1981, he spent a year in residence at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, before joining the Hopkins faculty in 1982.

Dr. Anfinsen often joined forces with other scientists in calling for the responsible use of research and to discourage the development of biological weapons. In 1988, as a member of the Committee for Responsible Genetics, he urged Congress not to fund a $300 million request by the Department of Defense for biological weapons research.

"My husband was a great humanitarian," said Libby Anfinsen, his wife of 15 years. "He was, on the surface, very easygoing, but a man of great depth."

Dr. Anfinsen was the author of 200 scientific articles and a book, The Molecular Basis of Evolution (1959), in which he described the relationships between protein chemistry and genetics and the promise those areas held for the understanding of evolution. Dr. Anfinsen was a former president of the American Society of Biological Chemists and a former council member of the National Academy of Sciences. He was former editor of the journal Advances in Protein Chemistry and had served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Biopolymers and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Besides the Nobel Prize, his honors include a Rockefeller Foundation Public Service Award (1954), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1958) and a National Library of Medicine Medal. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1963 and the Royal Danish Academy in 1964. He was awarded more than a dozen honorary doctorates, among them from Swarthmore College (1965), Georgetown University (1967), New York Medical College (1969) and the University of Las Palmas, Canary Islands (1993).

Dr. Anfinsen had served on the Weizmann Institute of Science board of governors since 1962, and was a member of American Philosophical Society and the Pontifical Academy of Science.

Survivors include his wife, Libby Esther Anfinsen; a sister, Carol Weightman of La Jolla, Calif.; two daughters, Carol Crafts of Providence, R.I., and Margot Britton of Alexandria, Va.; and a son, Christian Anfinsen of Dillsburg, Pa.; four stepchildren, Mark Ely of Washington, D.C., Tobie Beckerman of Washington, D.C., Daniel Ely of Potomac, Md., and David Ely of Potomac, Md.; and 13 grandchildren.


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