Anfinsen, Christian B. (Christian Boehmer), 1916-1995

Alternative names
Birth 1916-03-26
Death 1995-05-16

Biographical notes:

Biographical Sketch: Christian Boehmer Anfinsen, Jr. (1916-1995), was an American biochemist who shared the 1972 Nobel Prize for work that helped explain the structure and composition of proteins in living cells. After receiving his B.S. degree in chemistry in 1937, Anfinsen pursued graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked toward a M.S. degree in organic chemistry in 1939 while serving as an assistant instructor. In 1941, Anfinsen was offered a university fellowship for doctoral study in the Department of Biological Chemistry at Harvard Medical School. Anfinsen received his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1943 after completing his dissertation, "Quantitative Histochemical Studies of the Retina." Between 1962-1981, Anfinsen was chief of the Laboratory of Chemical Biology at the National Arthritis Institute. From 1983-1995, he served as professor of biology and assistant to the President for Industrial Liaison at Johns Hopkins University.

From the description of Christian B. Anfinsen Papers, 1939-1999 (bulk 1950-1999). (National Library of Medicine). WorldCat record id: 49760952

U.S. biochemist; received 1972 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

From the description of Christian Boehmer Anfinsen note, 1972, Nov. 13. (Duke University). WorldCat record id: 31351405

Christian Boehmer Anfinsen, Jr., was born 26 March 1916 in Monessen, Pennsylvania, a small town south of Pittsburgh. His father, Christian Boehmer Anfinsen, Sr., was a mechanical engineer; both he and his wife, Sophie Rasmussen Anfinsen, were Norwegian immigrants who taught their children the Norwegian language and heritage. After living for several years in the Pennsylvania town of Charleroi, the family moved to Philadelphia in the 1920s. In 1933, Anfinsen was admitted to Swarthmore College on a scholarship, where he studied chemistry and played football while working as a waiter in the dining hall. The 1937 edition of the Halcyon, the Swarthmore yearbook, described him this way: "With nostrils distended (denoting passion) [Anfinsen] strolls around campus under a mop of flaxen hair looking soulfully at the co-eds with big blue eyes." Reminiscing about his college years in 1964, Anfinsen noted humbly that "Everyone at Swarthmore was a genius except me."

After receiving his B.S. degree in chemistry in 1937, Anfinsen pursued graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked toward a M.S. degree in organic chemistry in 1939 while serving as an assistant instructor. In 1939, the American Scandinavian Foundation awarded Anfinsen a fellowship to develop new methods for analyzing the chemical structure of complex proteins, namely enzymes, at the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen, Denmark. The dangerous environment created in Europe after the outbreak of World War Two, however, made it necessary for him to return to the United States in 1940. Alan Schechter, one of Anfinsen's postdoctoral students and later an NIH colleague, observed that Anfinsen "had the chance to see and understand the horrors then gripping Europe. His unusually deep and active sense of social responsibility certainly dated from that period, if not earlier."

In 1941, Anfinsen was offered a university fellowship for doctoral study in the Department of Biological Chemistry at Harvard Medical School. In November of that year, he married his first wife, Florence Bernice Kenenger, with whom he had three children. Anfinsen received his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1943 after completing his dissertation, "Quantitative Histochemical Studies of the Retina," which also served as the basis of his first article [KKBBJM]. Anfinsen taught courses in biological chemistry at Harvard until 1950.

In 1950, the National Heart Institute, one part of the rapidly expanding National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, recruited Anfinsen as chief of its Laboratory of Cellular Phsyiology. In 1954, a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship enabled Anfinsen to return to the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen for a year with Kaj Linderstrom-Lang, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship allowed him to study at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, in 1958-1959.

In 1962, Anfinsen returned to Harvard Medical School as a visiting professor, and was promptly invited to become chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry. The NIH, however, wooed Anfinsen back to Bethesda. He was appointed Chief of the brand-new Laboratory of Chemical Biology at the National Arthritis Institute (now the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin diseases), where he remained until 1981. In 1972, Anfinsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on the basis of groundbreaking work in protein chemistry that he had conducted since the early 1950s. He shared the prize with Stanford Moore and William H. Stein, both at Rockefeller University.

In 1978, Anfinsen and his wife were divorced. The following year, he married Libby Esther Shulman Ely and converted to Orthodox Judaism, a commitment he retained for the rest of his life. "Although my feelings about religion still very strongly reflect a fifty-year period of orthodox agnosticism," Anfinsen wrote in 1985, "I must say that I do find the history, practice and intensity of Judaism an extremely interesting philosophical package." In 1981, Anfinsen was offered the position of chief scientist of Tatlit, a scientific research company formed by Yeda, the corporate arm of the Weizmann Institute, and the U.S. Investment firm E.F. Hutton. Two weeks after the Anfinsens arrived in Israel, however, E.F. Hutton withdrew its funding from the project, leaving the couple in limbo. Anfinsen "stuck out the forced inactivity for about a year," as he observed a few years later, "but finally, needing some kind of active scientific base, wrote to friends at the Johns Hopkins University." In 1982, the university offered him a senior position as Professor of Biology and Assistant to the President for Industrial Liaison. From 1983 until 1995, Anfinsen's primary research concerned the study of "hypothermophilic bacteria," microorganisms that thrive at extremely high temperatures.

Throughout his distinguished career Anfinsen received numerous professional honors, including memberships in the American Philosophical Society, the Royal Danish Academy, and the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Science. From 1962, he served on the Weizmann Institute's board of governors. He was an editor of the journal Advances in Protein Chemistry and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . He also focused considerable energies on a wide range of social and political issues including nuclear disarmament, environmental depredation, and human rights abuses committed against scientists in foreign nations. Aside from his many professional and scientific responsibilities, Anfinsen played viola and piano for relaxation. He was also an avid sailor and took regular excursions on his boat around the Chesapeake Bay and along the eastern seaboard from Boston to Miami. On 14 May 1995, Anfinsen suffered a heart attack and died at Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown, Maryland, less than a year before his 80th birthday.

  • 1916: Born Christian Boehmer Anfinsen, Jr. in Monessen, Pennsylvania (March 26)
  • 1937: Receives B.S., Swarthmore College
  • 1939: Receives M.S. (organic chemistry), University of Pennsylvania
  • 1939 - 40 : Carlsberg Laboratory (Copenhagen), position as Fellow of the American Scandinavian Foundation
  • 1941: Marries Florence Bernice Keneger; marriage ends, 1978
  • 1943: Receives Ph.D. (biochemistry), Harvard Medical School
  • 1943 - 50 : Assistant professor, Department of Biological Chemistry, Harvard Medical School
  • 1944 - 46 : Civilian research position at Harvard for the Office of Scientific Research and Development
  • 1947 - 48 : Senior Fellow, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, at the Medical Nobel Institutte (Stockholm)
  • 1950 - 52 : Chief, Laboratory of Cellular Physiology, National Heart Institute (NHI), National Institutes of Health [NIH]
  • 1952 - 62 : Chief, Laboratory of Cellular Physiology and Metabolism, NHI
  • 1954: Rockefeller Fellow, Carlsberg Laboratory (Copenhagen)
  • 1954 - 62 : Develops "thermodynamic principle" to describe protein folding in enzymes
  • 1958 - 59 : Guggenheim Fellow, Weizmann Institute of Science (Rehovot, Israel)
  • 1959: The Molecular Basis of Evolution published
  • 1962 - 63 : Visiting Professor, Harvard Medical School, Department of Biological Chemistry
  • 1963 - 81 : Chief, Laboratory of Chemical Biology, National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases [NIAMD, then NIAMDD, later NIDDK]
  • 1966 - 68 : Uses affinity chromatography techniques to identify amino acid sequence in enzymes
  • 1972: Shares Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Stanford Moore and William H. Stein
  • 1973: Begins work on interferon
  • 1979: Marries Libby Esther Shulman Ely
  • 1981: Retires from NIH
  • 1981 - 82 : Weizmann Institute of Science, Visiting Professor of Biochemistry
  • 1982 - 95 : Professor, Department of Biology, The Johns Hopkins University
  • 1983: Work on "hypothermophilic bacteria" commences
  • 1995: Dies of heart attack in Randallstown, Maryland (May 14)
  • 1996: International Conference on Protein Folding and Design, honoring Anfinsen (April 23-26)
Awards and Prizes Rockefeller Foundation Public Service Award International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry Travel Grant Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for Travel National Science Foundation Travel Award Weizmann Institute of Science (Rehovot, Israel), Honorary Fellow All Souls College, Visiting Fellow American Society of Biological Chemists, President Nobel Prize in Chemistry (with Stanford Moore and William H. Stein) National Library of Medicine Medal William Lloyd Evans Memorial Award, Ohio State University Editorial Boards Advances in Protein Chemistry, Editor Biopolymers Journal of Biological Chemistry Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Honorary Degrees Adelphi University Brandeis University Georgetown University Gustavus Adolphus College New York Medical College Providence College Swarthmore College University of Las Palmas (Canary Islands) University of Naples University of Pennsylvania Yeshiva University Lectureships Baird Hastings Memorial Lecture, Harvard Medical School EMBO Lecturer for Sweden Harvey Lecture? Jubilee Lecture, British Biochemical Society Kelly Lecture, Purdue University Kempner Lectureship, University of Texas Medical Branch (Galveston) Leon Lecture, University of Pennsylvania Mathers Lectures, Indiana University (Bloomington) Naff Lectures, University of Kentucky (Lexington) Memberships American Academy of Arts and Sciences American Philosophical Society American Society of Biological Chemists National Academy of Sciences National Institute on Aging, board of scientific counselors Pontifical Academy of Science Royal Danish Academy Professorships Center of Marine Biotechnology (University of Maryland), faculty affiliate Harvard Medical School, Department of Biological Chemistry Johns Hopkins University, Department of Biology

From the guide to the Christian Anfinsen Papers, 1939-1999 (bulk 1964-1999), (History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine)


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  • Interferon
  • Plasmodium knowlesi
  • Molecular biology
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Chromatography
  • Protein Conformation
  • Genetics, Biochemical
  • Thermococcaceae
  • Human rights
  • Peptides


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