Kornberg





A. Personal Information
Arthur Kornberg (1918-), American biochemist and physician, claims
he has never met “a dull enzyme.” He has devoted his life to pursuing
and purifying these critical protein molecules. His love of science did
not spring from a family history rooted in science. He was born on
March 3rd, 1918, the son of a sewing machine operator in the
sweatshops of the Lower East Side of New York City. His parents,
Joseph Aaron Kornberg and Lena Rachel Katz, were immigrant Jews
who made great sacrifices to ensure the safety of their family. They
had fled Poland, for if they had stayed, they would have been
murdered in a German concentration camp. His grandfather had
abandoned the paternal family name Queller, of Spanish origin. This
was done to escape the fate of the army draft; he had taken the
name of Kornberg, a man who had already done his service. His father
used their meager earnings to bring and settle his family in New York
City and was thrust into the sweatshops as a sewing machine
operator. He, along with his brother Martin, 13 years older and sister
Ella, nine years older, was encouraged by loving parents to obtain a
good education. The public school reinforced this ideal. Education was
the road of opportunity for social and economic mobility out of the
sweatshops.

His early education in grade school and Abraham Lincoln High School
in Brooklyn was distinguished only by his “skipping ” several grades.
There was nothing inspirational about his courses except the teachers’
encouragement to get good grades. When he received a grade of 100
in the New York State Regents Examination, his chemistry teacher
glowed with pride. It was the first time in over twenty years of
teaching that a student of his had gotten a perfect grade. Arthur was
a brilliant student who graduated from high school at the age of
fifteen. He enrolled in City College in uptown Manhattan. Competition
among a large body of bright and highly motivated students was
fierce in all subjects. His high school interest in chemistry carried over
into college. After receiving his B.S. degree in biology and chemistry
in 1937, and since City College offered no graduate studies or
research laboratories at that time, he became one of two hundred
pre-med students at the University of Rochester. All through college
he worked as a salesman in his parents’ furnishing store, and earned
about $14 a week. This along with a New York State Regents
Scholarship of $100 a year and with no college tuition to pay he was
able to save enough money to pay for the first half of medical school.
While a student, he became aware of a mild jaundice (yellowing) in
his eyes. He observed a similar condition among other students and
patients at the hospital and published these findings, his first
professional paper, in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

He enjoyed studying to become a doctor, and his goal was to practice
internal medicine, preferably in an academic setting. The medical
school curriculum was uncrowded and close contact with a
distinguished faculty was encouraged, but to his shock anti-Semitism
was rampant in the academic circles. He was denied academic awards
and research opportunities because he was Jewish. He had hoped to
receive one of the fellowships from the medical school which allowed
a few outstanding students to spend a year doing research, even
though the idea of spending a significant amount of his days in the
laboratory had no appeal at that time. To his disappointment he was
passed over in every department, due to the ethnic and religious
barriers which existed during that time, even though his grades were
the highest. Although one professor at Rochester stood out, William
S. McCann, Chairman of the Department of Medicine, the only one who
made any effort to help Kornberg. William McCann persuaded a
wealthy patient to endow a scholarship of which Kornberg was the
recipient. This enabled Kornberg to pursue his first research project
(on jaundice), and allowed him to be appointed to an internship in
medicine, and then to an assistant residency, which would groom him
for a career in academic medicine. Following his graduation in 1941,
Kornberg enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, being