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Vol. LXVII, No. 9
April 24, 2015
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‘Least Likely’ Man Well-Loved
NLM Symposium Welcomes Multiple Nirenberg Gifts

Speakers at the Tribute to Dr. Marshall Nirenberg included (from l) NLM’s Drs. Jeff Reznick and George Thoma, Dr. Myrna Weissman, Dr. David Serlin, NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg and Dr. Frank Portugal. Nirenberg in the 1960s with long-time laboratory technicians Norma Heaton (l) and Theresa Caryk.

Speakers at the Tribute to Dr. Marshall Nirenberg included (from l) NLM’s Drs. Jeff Reznick and George Thoma, Dr. Myrna Weissman, Dr. David Serlin, NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg and Dr. Frank Portugal.

Symposium Photos: Stephen Greenberg

Nirenberg in the 1960s with long-time laboratory technicians Norma Heaton (l) and Theresa Caryk.

Photo: Jerry Hecht

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Marshall W. Nirenberg’s eventual Nobel Prize-winning work on uncovering the universal genetic code, the National Library of Medicine held “A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg” recently.

The event included presentation of Nirenberg’s Nobel medal and certificate to NLM, for permanent display in the NLM Visitor Center, and remembrances by people who knew him well: his widow, Dr. Myrna Weissman; former colleague Dr. Frank Portugal, who wrote a book about Nirenberg; and experts who have had a hand in assuring that the accomplishments of the NIH intramural program’s—and the federal government’s—first Nobel laureate will not be forgotten.

The afternoon was most notable for the warmth with which Nirenberg is remembered.

He was never a member of the prestigious “RNA Tie Club,” which apparently has still not fully relinquished its claim of being first to discover the genetic code. An outsider to the club that included Nobel laureates Dr. Francis Crick, Dr. James Watson and Dr. Sydney Brenner, Nirenberg was a gentle, modest, genial man who wore his genius lightly.

Educated at state schools—the University of Florida for undergraduate work and the University of Michigan for graduate school—and a 1957 arrival at an NIH that bore virtually no prestige whatsoever, Nirenberg actually proved—doggedly and painstakingly—what his European peers only conjectured about the genetic code, and thus shared in the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine in 1968.

Because he was so unassuming, Nirenberg had been dubbed “the least likely man” to have realized his accomplishments; that slogan is now the title of a biography written by Portugal, a Catholic University professor who used to work in Nirenberg’s lab. Portugal’s remembrances were measured, scholarly and occasionally hilarious.

NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg, hosting one of the last events of his distinguished 31-year career leading the library, set the tone: “[Nirenberg] really was everybody’s favorite scientist. He was a really lovely person, and up and down all of the corridors and different offices and echelons at NLM, lots of people knew him. Lots of people were really pleased and happy with him.”

Speaking via videotape because he was out of town, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said Nirenberg’s work “sent shock waves through the scientific community…This was our first glimpse of the biological Rosetta stone. He didn’t stop with cracking the genetic code, but went on to prove that it was universal…All life must be descended from a common ancestor.”

Collins added, “Marshall was a scientist’s scientist, and a mentor’s mentor. He was bold and innovative, yet also a great collaborator and a gentle, modest person.” Collins said the gift of Nirenberg’s Nobel medal and certificate—along with papers that have been donated to NLM over the years—“are truly a gift for the ages.”

Weissman, now at Columbia University Medical Center, said her husband was called the least likely man in the same way that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are unlikely—they simply burst on the scene with ideas better than those of others.

Caryk (l) and Heaton returned for the symposium held in honor of their former colleague.
Caryk (l) and Heaton returned for the symposium held in honor of their former colleague.

She said that when Nirenberg arrived on the NIH campus at 3 a.m. after driving all night from Michigan, he was impressed to find lights blazing in Bldg. 10. “It was a sign to him that Marshall had found his ‘California garage,’” Weissman said.

Nirenberg earned many medals in his life, Weissman recalled, but had two favorites. One was a large, heavy medal acknowledging his service in the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He was supposed to be wearing it on the day he had an audience with the Pope. “But he forgot it,” Weissman shared, with a chuckle.

The other beloved medal is freighted with pathos and humor. Nirenberg met with a distracted President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office in the 1960s and emerged not with a scientific medal but with an iron medallion commemorating the Chamizal Settlement, a U.S.-Mexico water rights agreement.

Weissman said Nirenberg “had the curiosity of a brilliant child. He had incredible imagination and he was a dreamer. He really enjoyed others who also were dreamers.” She said he was compassionate, with “a complete lack of arrogance or self-aggrandizement” and was committed to issues of social justice.

Commenting on the neglect Nirenberg continues to experience, even in textbooks that barely mention him, she observed, “It really didn’t bother him. In fact, he thought it was kind of funny.”

When Nirenberg’s first wife, Dr. Perola Zaltzman, was ill for many years, Nirenberg eschewed travel, using his frequent flyer miles to subscribe to magazines, especially those relating to boats. In late life, he became a sailor. Meanwhile, the magazines that piled up in his Bethesda home—in addition to 40 years’ worth of scientific papers—made it necessary to build pylons under his office to support the floor.

“He had no children, but he delighted in mine,” said Weissman. He once brought a mouse home from the lab—“probably illegally”—to entertain a grandchild and was happy to watch the TV cartoon Spongebob Squarepants with grandchildren.

She concluded, “If you really knew Marshall, you would realize he was the most likely man to unravel the code of life.”

Portugal, author of the new book The Least Likely Man: Marshall Nirenberg and the Discovery of the Genetic Code (MIT Press), recalled that Nirenberg was once approached, after a scientific talk in downtown D.C., by a stunningly beautiful young woman who asked if she might have lunch with him. So keen was she to know more about the “code of life” that she booked a hotel room for the two of them, post-lunch.

Nirenberg’s Nobel medal (l) and certificate are now on display in the NLM Visitor Center.
Nirenberg’s Nobel medal (l) and certificate are now on display in the NLM Visitor Center.

“Of course, she was a Russian spy, who thought that Marshall’s code might have some military application,” Portugal explained.

While Nirenberg gracefully turned down that opportunity to mentor, he was prolific in that role with authentic scholars, Portugal noted. “Marshall mentored 150 postdocs through his entire career,” Portugal said. “Normal is about 25.”

The tribute concluded with presentations by two experts who have eased access to the trove of Nirenberg donations to NLM. Dr. George Thoma, chief of NLM’s Communications Engineering Branch, formally launched a new Turning the Pages interactive presentation of Nirenberg’s first summary of the genetic code. Historian Dr. David Serlin of the University of California, San Diego, curator of NLM’s Profiles in Science web site on the Marshall Nirenberg Papers, offered additional anecdotes about a man he described as “a devoted public scientist.”

Nirenberg turned down many offers of academic and private sector employment, Serlin said, in order to enjoy the freedom of the NIH intramural program. Even at his busiest, he welcomed interested high schoolers, including Xandra Breakefield, who later became one of his postdocs and is now a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Serlin is grateful to Nirenberg for “opening the gates” of both his lab and home to him. “When I went to his basement for the first time,” Serlin recalls, “it was like the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. We went in as if going on [an archaeological] dig.”

The NLM tribute—viewable online at http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=15563&bhcp=1—was the first of a “triplet” of collaborative NIH events in 2015 that will celebrate Nirenberg’s life and legacy.


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