NLM in Focus

Library Honors Nobel Laureate Marshall Nirenberg who Unraveled the Genetic Code

Nirenberg with molecular models, ca. 1962

Fifty years ago, Marshall W. Nirenberg, PhD deciphered the genetic code. It led to a Nobel Prize—the first for a scientist at the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Nirenberg’s family recently donated his Nobel Prize medal to the National Library of Medicine to be added to the papers and other items that chronicle his contributions to science. NLM’s History of Medicine Division hosted the first of three events at NIH that will celebrate the legacy of Marshall Nirenberg and the fiftieth anniversary of his deciphering of the genetic code. Subsequent events will be announced by the NIH Office of Intramural Research.

“A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg” was filled with personal stories from Nirenberg’s wife; from a scientist in his lab; and from a historian who helped develop NLM’s Nirenberg collection. The event, held March 17, was recorded and can be viewed on demand.

Nirenberg was known for curiosity, modesty and compassion

“He had an incredible imagination. He was a dreamer. And he really enjoyed other people who were dreamers also,” said Myrna Weissman, PhD. She and Nirenberg, who had both lost their spouses, met in 2001 and were married from 2005 until his death in 2010. “He was a most compassionate human being. He could sit with people and listen to them for hours. He had a complete lack of arrogance or self-aggrandizement.”

Speaker Frank Portugal, PhD worked in Nirenberg’s lab and recently published the book The Least Likely Man: Marshall Nirenberg and the Discovery of the Genetic Code. Portugal talked about the competition to unravel life’s code and described Nirenberg as “David in a David and Goliath story.” While Nirenberg worked in his government lab, 20 other scientists formed a club to solve the same puzzle and excluded Nirenberg. He ultimately prevailed.

“I was very fortunate to be in Marshall’s lab,” Portugal said. “It was an experience that changed my life. The mantle from Marshall fell on all of us who participated with him.” Portugal researched his book at NLM and also conducted interviews with people who knew Nirenberg throughout his life, as early as elementary school. What emerged from those conversations, Portugal said, “is that Marshall, throughout his life, had this modesty. And, it never changed.”

Nirenberg was committed to science for the public

Marshall Nirenberg with NLM Archivist Christie Moffat and Historian David Serlin, 2001

Historian David Serlin, PhD recalled how he and others in the History of Medicine Division spent days in Nirenberg’s home, sifting through boxes in his basement and office, to curate the Nirenberg profile for NLM’s Profiles in Science project. Comparing it to an archeological dig, Serlin said Nirenberg made himself available in the search process every step of the way.

“Not only was Marshall Nirenberg, an extremely modest man but he was very much committed to being a public scientist,” Serlin noted. “Following his Nobel Prize in 1968, he was made offers from virtually every academic institution and from private corporations around the world. He said ‘No.’”

Nirenberg’s first summary of the genetic code can be seen in new online project

One of the most significant pieces in the Nirenberg collection is the chart that is the first summary of the genetic code. Dated January 18, 1965, when more than half of the code had been deciphered, the document, with curatorial notes provided by Serlin, was recently added to NLM’s Turning the Pages project, which is available online and as an iPad app.

Nirenberg’s Nobel Prize medal on display in the NLM’s History of Medicine Division

Nirenberg won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1968. He shared the award with Har Gobind Khorana of the University of Wisconsin and Robert W. Holley of the Salk Institute.

Staff of the NLM’s History of Medicine Division warmly welcome visitors to see the new display of Marshall Nirenberg’s Nobel Prize medal, and to visit the division anytime during Library hours — Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. – for a tour of the historical collections and current exhibitions of the Library.

By Shana Potash, NLM in Focus editor

Related Information
Circulating Now: Marshall Nirenberg
Profiles in Science: The Marshall W. Nirenberg Papers