I was born June 25, 1911 in New York City, the second of three children, to Freed M. and Beatrice Borg Stein. My father was a business man who was greatly interested in communal affairs, particularly those dealing with health, and he retired quite early in life in order to devote his full time to such matters as the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association, Montefiore Hospital and others. My mother, too, was greatly interested in communal affairs and devoted most of her life to bettering the lot of the children of New York City. During my childhood, I received much encouragement from both of my parents to enter into medicine or a fundamental science.
My early education was at the Lincoln School of Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City, a school which was considered progressive for that time and which fostered in me an active interest in creative arts, music, and writing. There I had my first course in chemistry which proved to be an extremely valuable and interesting one. I left this school when I was about sixteen and went to an excellent preparatory school in New England, namely Phillips Exeter Academy, which was at the time, although it has changed since, a much more rigid and much more demanding educational experience than I had had at Lincoln. It was at Exeter that I was introduced to standards of precision of writing, and of work generally which I think has stood me in very good stead, and I believe that the combination of a progressive school and a more demanding school such as I enjoyed was an ideal preparation. From Exeter I went to Harvard where I had a very enjoyable, although not a very academically distinguished career, and graduated from the college in 1933 at the depths of the economic depression. I had majored in chemistry at college and decided to continue on at Harvard as a graduate student in that subject. This proved to be a rather unfortunate experience because my first graduate year was undistinguished, to say the very least. I was almost ready to abandon a career in science when it was suggested to me that I might enjoy biochemistry much more than straight organic chemistry.
The next year, I transferred to the Department of Biochemistry, then headed by the late Hans Clarke at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University in New York. The department at Columbia was an eye-opener for me. Professor Clarke had succeeded in surrounding himself with a fascinating and active faculty and an almost equally stimulating group of graduate students. From both of these I learned a tremendous amount in a short time. My thesis involved the amino acid analysis of the protein elastin, which was then thought to play a role in coronary artery disease and I completed the requirements for my degree at Columbia late in 1937 and went directly to the laboratory of Max Bergmann at the Rockefeller Institute.
While still a graduate student, I had the extreme good fortune to marry, in 1936, Phoebe Hockstader who has been of enormous support to me ever since. We have three sons, William H. Jr., 35; David F., 33; Robert J., 28.
Bergmann was, I still feel, one of the very great protein chemists of this century and he, too, had the ability to surround himself with a most talented group of postdoctoral colleagues. In the laboratory at the time that I was there were, of course, Dr. Moore, and, in addition, Dr Joseph S. Fruton, Dr Emil L. Smith, Dr. Klaus Hofmann, Dr. Paul Zamecnik, and many others. It was impossible not to learn a great deal about the business of research in protein chemistry from Bergmann, himself, and from the outstanding group he had around him.
The task of Moore and myself was to devise accurate analytical methods for the determination of the amino acid composition of proteins, because Bergmann firmly believed, as did we, that the amino acid analysis of proteins bore the same relationship to these macromolecules that elementary analysis bore to the chemistry of simpler organic substances. It was during this period in the mid-thirties that Bergmann and Fruton and their colleagues were working out the specificity of proteolytic enzymes, work which has had a profound effect upon our knowledge of how enzymes function and has made it possible to use these proteolytic enzymes as tools for the degradation and subsequent derivation of structure of protein molecules ever since.
Work on proteins was suspended during the war for other more pressing matters and Dr. Moore left the laboratory in order to be of assistance in Washington and elsewhere. Our entire group was engaged in working for the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Bergmann’s death in 1944 robbed the world of a distinguished chemist and, of course, left the laboratory without a chief. The group continued to function until the end of the war at which time Moore and I had the very great good fortune to be asked by Dr. Herbert Gasser, Director of the Institute, to stay on at Rockefeller with the freedom to do anything we pleased in the biochemical field.
In the meantime, had come the remarkable developments in England on the separation of amino acids by paper chromatography by Martin and Synge and Sanger had started his classical work on the derivation of the structure of insulin. It was then, perhaps, not surprising that Moore and I resumed our collaboration, and following a suggestion of Synge began to try to separate amino acids on columns of potato starch. We were very fortunate in hitting upon a type of potato starch which was well-suited to our needs almost immediately, and from that day on began to work first on the amino acid analysis, and then on the structural analysis of proteins. From columns of potato starch, we progressed to columns of ion exchange resins, developed the automatic amino acid analyzer, and together with a group of very devoted and extremely skillful collaborators, began work on the structure of ribonuclease. These columns were also used for other purposes. In the course of the early work, we developed a drop-counting automatic fraction collector which is now a common instrument in most biochemical laboratories throughout the world.
I should like to emphasize that the development of methods grew out of a need rather than a particular desire to develop methods as ends in themselves. We needed to know the amino acid composition of proteins, we needed to be able to separate and analyze peptides in good yield, and we needed to be able to purify proteins chromatographically. Since there were no methods for doing any of these things at the time that we started, we had to devise them ourselves. We not only wanted to know what the amino acid sequence of an enzyme such as ribonuclease was, but we tried to find out as much as we could about what made it an enzyme and after we had taken that particular enzyme about as far as we thought we could profitably go, we turned to a number of others which have been listed in the Nobel Lecture.
During all of this time, we had the undeviating support of an enlightened administration at Rockefeller who believed in allowing us to do those things which we thought to be important, and, during the last years of this work, we also have had great financial assistance from the NIH. For this and particularly for the very large number of devoted and talented colleagues which we have had in the laboratory we shall be forever grateful.
During all of this time, each of us, naturally, developed interests outside of the laboratory. I, for example, became greatly concerned about the promulgation of scientific information and have been attached, in one way or another, to the Journal of Biological Chemistry for a matter of over fifteen years. During this time it has been my privilege to work with a knowledgeable and dedicated group of biochemists who have devoted themselves unselfishly to serving the interests of their fellow biochemists throughout the world.
Scientific Societies – National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Society of Biological Chemists, Biochemical Society of London, American Chemical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Harvey Society of New York.
I was a member of the Editorial Committee of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, which is an elective office, for six years and Chairman of this Committee for three, 1958-61. After the conclusion of my work on the Editorial Committee, I became a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 1962, and then an Associate Editor from 1964 until 1968. I assumed the Editorship, succeeding John T. Edsall, in 1968, a post I was forced to relinquish by illness in 1971.
Other Activities – Member of the Council of the Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness of the NIH, 1961-66; Chairman of the U.S. National Committee for Biochemistry, 1968-69; Philip Schaffer Lecturer at Washington University at St. Louis, 1965; Harvey Lecturer, 1956; Phillips Lecturer at Haverford College, 1962; Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago, 1961; Visiting Professor at Harvard University, 1964; Member of Medical Advisory Board, Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, 1957-1970; Trustee, Montefiore Hospital.
Awards (shared with Stanford Moore): American Chemical Society Award in Chromatography and Electrophoresis, 1964; Richards Medal of the American Chemical Society, 1972; Kaj Linderstrøm-Lang Award, Copenhagen, 1972.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
William H. Stein died on February 2, 1980.