Daniel Nathans


My parents came to the United States in the early years of this century as part of a wave of Russian Jewish immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity in the New World. My mother, Sarah Levitan, came to America when she was 18. My father, Samuel, rebelling against an orthodox family, left home in his midteens and made his way to the United States a few years later. They were married in Philadelphia in 1910. As the last of their nine children I was born in 1928 in Wilmington, Delaware, on the eve of the great depression. Soon after, my father lost his small business and was for some time unemployed. Our house was cold and leaky, and (I learned later) my parents sometimes went hungry. Yet they generally managed to retain their good humor and certainly their hopes for their children. I have only fond memories of this period, no doubt due to the special attentions of an affectionate family.

My education began in the public schools of Wilmington. During most of these years, from about age 10, I also worked at some job or other after school, on weekends, and in the summer months. Following in the footsteps of my brothers and sisters, I went on to the University of Delaware, where I studied chemistry, philosophy, and literature. Although I enjoyed science and mathematics, what I remember most vividly is a small, stimulating circle of professors and students (including a number of veterans just back from the war), interested in philosophy and politics. To my father my interest in natural science meant “medicine”, and becoming a physician also seemed more attractive to me than any other alternative I knew about. So I applied to medical school and received a scholarship at Washington University in St. Louis. Washington University turned out to be a lucky choice. The faculty was scholarly and dedicated and accessible to students. A wonderful summer of research with Oliver Lowry, Professor of Pharmacology, convinced me that a career in medical research and teaching suited me better than medical practice. After getting an M. D. degree in 1954, I went to the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York for an internship in medicine with Robert Loeb, a masterful clinician and medical scientist. That was one of the most valuable years of my life. The glimpses of human strength and frailty that a physician sees are with me still. I spent two more years at Columbia as a medical resident, interrupted by service as a Clinical Associate at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. During my years in Bethesda, I married Joanne Gomberg, and our son Eli was born.

While at the National Institutes of Health I developed an interest in the biosynthesis of proteins as a result of a study with Michael Potter and John Fahey of myeloma protein formation in plasmacytoma cells. This led me to Fritz Lipmann’s laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute in 1959. Here I identified the bacterial “elongation factors” involved in the addition of amino acids to growing peptide chains, worked on the mechanism of action of puromycin as an inhibitor of this step (with Amos Neidle), and in a collaborative study with Norton Zinder, demonstrated that RNA from a bacterial virus directed the synthesis by cell extracts of viral coat protein. During those years in the invigorating atmosphere of Lipmann’s laboratory and the Rockefeller Institute, I learned a geat deal, and Lipmann’s artistry made a lasting impression on me. I also found out that I liked biochemical research and that I could do it. The intention of returning to a department of medicine was abandoned, and I accepted a position at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the Department of Microbiology, headed by Barry Wood, an inspiring former teacher at Washington University. During the years in New York our son Jeremy was born, and soon after our move to Baltimore in 1962, my wife gave birth to our youngest son, Ben.

In Baltimore I became head of a one-man “Division of Genetics” which gradually developed substance with the recruitment of Hamilton Smith, Bernard Weiss, Kenneth Berns, Thomas Kelly, and recently, John Morrow. My initial research at Hopkins was a continuation of studies on the in vitro translation of bacteriophage RNA, particularly its regulation by phage coat protein and the location of genes by translation of fragments of the RNA. My co-workers during these years were Yoshiro Shimura, Max Oeschger, Gerardo Suarez, Robb Moses, Kathleen Eggen, Roy Schmickel, Herbert Kaizer, Marilyn Kozak, and Susan Polmar.

In the mid 60’s I became interested in viral tumorigenesis and spent the first half of 1969 learning about animal cells and viruses at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, with Leo Sachs and Ernest Winocour. That spring a letter from Hamilton Smith telling me about the restriction endonuclease he had discovered in Hemophilus influenzae aroused my interest in the possibility of using restriction enzymes to dissect the genomes of DNA tumor viruses. Back in Baltimore in the summer and fall of 1969, Stuart Adler and I surveyed the known restriction enzymes for their ability to cleave the DNA of Simian Virus 40, one of the simplest animal viruses that transform cultured cells to tumorigenicity. Using fragments of Simian Virus 40 DNA produced by Smith’s enzyme and by similar enzymes discovered subsequently, Kathleen Danna and George Sack constructed a cleavage map of the viral DNA. With this map in hand, other co-workers proceeded to localize viral genes and template functions along the molecule, to construct deletion mutants and later point mutants at pre-selected restriction sites, and to analyse the genomes of naturally arising variants of the virus. Associates in these later studies were Elena Nightingale, Ching-Juh Lai, Theresa Lee, William Brockman, Mary Gutai, Walter Scott, Nicholas Muzyczka, and David Shortle; and collaborators from other laboratories were George Khoury, Malcolm Martin, Kathleen Rundell, and Peter Tegtmeyer.

As I look back on the last few decades of my life, I am struck by the good fortune that came my way. Throughout my schooling there was an abundance of opportunity and encouragement. Several of my teachers were remarkable individuals who had a lasting influence on me. At every stage of my career I have had interesting and cordial colleagues, some of whom are close friends. My field of research is as exciting to me as ever, and it remains essentially a “cottage industry” effort. I have had talented students who are a source of much enjoyment, and I anticipate more to come as their careers develop. And most important, my wife and sons have created in our home an atmosphere of joy and harmony, so essential to everything else.

Born 30 October, 1928, to Samuel and Sarah (Levitan) Nathans in Wilmington, Delaware, U. S.A.
Married 4 March, 1956, to Joanne Gomberg. Three children: Eli, Jeremy, Ben.
B. S. in Chemistry (1950), University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware.
M. D. (1954), Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.
Intern (1954-1955) and Resident (1957-1959) in Medicine, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, New York.
Clinical Associate (1955-1957), National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
Guest Investigator (1959-1962), Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, New York.
Faculty member (1962-present), The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland. Since 1972, Boury Professor and Director of the Department of Microbiology.
American Cancer Society Scholar (1969), Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel.
National Academy of Sciences’ U. S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology (1976).
Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1977).

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1978, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1979

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.


Daniel Nathans died on November 16, 1999.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1978

To cite this section
MLA style: Daniel Nathans – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Mon. 2 Oct 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1978/nathans/biographical/>

Back to top Back To Top Takes users back to the top of the page

Watch the 2023 Nobel Prize announcements

Don't miss the Nobel Prize announcements 2-9 October!

Watch the live stream of the announcements.

Explore prizes and laureates

Look for popular awards and laureates in different fields, and discover the history of the Nobel Prize.