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NIH Record - 75th Anniversary - National Institutes of Health

NIH Scientist Emeritus Korn Remembered

Korn head & shoulders with lab shelves behind him

Dr. Edward Korn

Dr. Edward Korn, an NIH scientist emeritus since 2016 who retired in May 2023 from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), died on Mar. 31.

Born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Korn received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in 1954. As a graduate student he accepted fellowships with both UPenn and the new intramural research program of the former National Heart Institute (NHI, now NHLBI), joining renowned NIH staff including Drs. Christian Anfinsen, Robert Berliner, Earl and Thressa “Terry” Stadtman, Jack Orloff and Martha Vaughan, among others. 

Korn began his research initially in the lab of Anfinsen, working on the hydrolysis of lipoproteins, then moved on to establish his own Laboratory of Cell Biology in 1974, where he pursued pioneering research for the next 65 years. 

Korn’s work in biochemistry and cell biology defined the fundamental basis of actomyosin contractility. He discovered single-headed, non-filamentous myosins and the regulation of nonmuscle myosins by heavy chain phosphorylation. He also obtained early evidence for actin filaments in nonmuscle cells and their association with the plasma membrane and the regulatory roles of actin-binding proteins and ATP hydrolysis in actin polymerization. 

Seminal discoveries such as those earned Korn many accolades, including election into the National Academy of Sciences in 1990, the NIH Merit Award in 2001 and the Nencki Award from the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology in Poland. 

“Ed was one of NIH’s giants,” noted Dr. James Sellers, senior investigator in NHLBI’s Cell and Developmental Biology Center (CDBC). “He was a great example of a biochemist who defined a biological system and worked to understand how it worked in detail.” 

Dr. Clare Waterman, CDBC director, describing the unparalleled impact of Korn’s research, said, “When I was being recruited to NIH in 2007, as a cytoskeletal cell biologist, one of the most exciting things about the prospect of coming here to NHLBI was the idea of following in the footsteps of the actual ‘father of cytoskeletal research.’ Ed Korn revealed the most fundamental basic principles of how the cytoskeleton worked, and his discoveries lie at the very foundation of our understanding of how eukaryotic life is animated. His passing truly signifies the end of an era.”

Korn also served as NHLBI’s fifth scientific director (SD) from 1989 to 1999. 

“Ed’s commitment to building a robust scientific and clinical intramural research program cannot be overstated,” said NHLBI SD Dr. Rick Childs, in an email to NHLBI’s Division of Intramural Research staff. “He was a key proponent in establishing the shared resources subcommittee of NIH scientific directors to fund and oversee trans-NIH initiatives and facilities and served as the committee’s first co-chair.” 

group of about 20 men & women stand outside in front of the Louis Stokes Laboratories building on NIH's Bethesda, Maryland, campus

Korn, with his lab, in front of the Stokes Bldg. in 2017

NIH’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Center, globally recognized as a center of excellence for NMR research, is one of the initiatives created while Korn was chair. Additionally, he championed the idea of establishing scientific core facilities within NHLBI to provide state-of-the-art services, techniques, instrumentation and expertise to DIR investigators. This concept—novel at the time—was subsequently widely adopted across the IRP, leading to more strategic resource management for NIH’s intramural research environment. 

Dr. Robert Balaban, who succeeded Korn as NHLBI SD of the Laboratory Research Program, summarized his impact.

“As SD, his goal was to have excellence and precision in the science conducted in the DIR,” Balaban explained. “He believed that providing investigators the intellectual freedom to follow their nose and perform innovative, high-risk science was the best approach, as long as the quality and impact of their research was outstanding.”

Korn authored or co-authored more than 250 peer-reviewed papers, and wrote and edited over 60 book chapters.

Dr. John Hammer, CDBC senior investigator, shared his experience working as a postdoctoral fellow in Korn’s lab: “Ed had a steel-trap mind, an unwavering desire to define biological mechanism, and, while tough, was always fair. What shone through most in Ed’s science was its rigor—‘You must do science with the utmost rigor so that others can build upon what you have done.’ His passing is certainly an end to an era in NHLBI, but the essence of what he taught and practiced will remain deeply ingrained in the DIR.”

The Edward D. Korn fellowship was established in 2018 to support outstanding NHLBI postbaccalaureate fellows for their Ph.D. training through an affiliated NIH Graduate Partnership Program.

Korn’s survivors include wife Mickey, daughters Betsy and Sarah, and a granddaughter. NHLBI plans to organize a ceremony to celebrate Korn’s life in science.  

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