Thomas R. Cech


Grandfather Josef, a shoemaker, immigrated to the U.S. from Bohemia in 1913. My other grandparents, also of Czech origin, were first-generation Americans. My father was and is a physician, my mother the homemaker. I was born in Chicago on December 8, 1947.

The safe streets and good schools of Iowa City, Iowa provided the backdrop for the childhood years of my sister Barbara, my brother Richard and myself. My father, who loved physics as much as medicine, interjected a scientific approach and point of view into most every family discussion. I discovered science for myself in fourth grade, collecting rocks and minerals and worrying about how they were formed. By the time I was in junior high school, I would knock on Geology professors’ doors at the University of Iowa, asking to see models of crystal structures and to discuss meteorites and fossils.

In 1966 I entered Grinnell College, where I was to derive as much enjoyment studying Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, and Constitutional History as Chemistry. I met Carol over the melting point apparatus in a make-up Organic Chemistry lab, starting the partnership of our lives that is now more than 20 years old.

The Chemistry I appreciated the most from textbooks was physical chemistry. However, undergraduate research experiences at Argonne National Laboratory and at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory taught me that I didn’t have a long enough attention span for the elaborate plumbing and electronics of gas-phase chemical physics. I was later attracted to biological chemistry because of the almost daily interplay of experimental design, observation, and interpretation.

Berkeley, 1970. Carol and I chose the University of California as much for the excitement of life there as for the excellence of its Chemistry Department. My thesis advisor, John Hearst, had an enthusiasm for chromosome structure and function that proved infectious; I have not yet recovered, nor do I wish to. Long days in the laboratory were punctuated by occasional backpacking trips in the alpine splendor of the Sierra Nevada.

In 1975 we obtained our Ph.D.’s and moved to postdoctoral positions in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Carol at Harvard and I at M.I.T. I strengthened my knowledge of biology in Mary Lou Pardue’s laboratory, and enjoyed being part of the interactive scientific scene at M.I.T.

We began our first faculty positions at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1978. I was initially attracted by the enthusiasm and energy of the faculty; I have stayed because in my field the intellectual environment here would be very hard to equal. We have benefitted from very fine colleagues, with whom we have shared many great dinners and ski trips to the nearby Rocky Mountains. More recently, life has been transformed by the addition to our family of two energetic daughters, Allison (born 1982) end Jennifer (1986). It promises to return to normal sometime in the next century.

Because of my research group’s discoveries, more than a dozen national and international awards preceded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1989. Among them were the Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry (American Chemical Society), the Award in Molecular Biology (U.S. National Academy of Sciences), the Heineken Prize (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences), and the Lasker Award. I received an honorary D.Sc. degree from Grinnell College in 1987 and from the University of Chicago in 1991. I have been elected to the U. S. National Academy of Sciences (1987) and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1988). In 1987 I was awarded a lifetime Professorship by the American Cancer Society, and in 1988 became Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1989, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1990

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.


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1989

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