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
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.