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Building Proteins

The early 1960s saw great breakthroughs in protein chemistry, the branch of science devoted to some of life’s most diverse and important molecules.  In 1962, Britain’s Dr. John Kendrew shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for being the first to untangle the complete three dimensional structure of a protein, sperm whale myoglobin, down to the individual atom. Myoglobin, an oxygen-storing molecule in the muscle tissue, is particularly plentiful in deep sea diving mammals like the sperm whale.

Myoglobin Protein Model, 1965
Professor Jonathan Wittenberg of Yeshiva University in the Bronx used this model to teach medical students about proteins and cell function. He ordered it from Cambridge University, where Dr. John Kendrew worked with a technician to produce the models for interested scientists.(Gift of Jonathan Wittenberg, Collected 2009)

Protein Synthesizer Component, 1965
In 1963 Dr. Bruce Merrifield of Rockefeller University devised a new way to make short-chain proteins from scratch.  His process increased yields, opening the door for other scientists to synthesize a wider variety of proteins for research. For it he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In 1965, he and his partners built a machine to automate the process. His technique remains an important method for industrial production of complex organic molecules. (Collected 1988, Gift of Rockefeller University)

Dr. Kendrew with an early myoglobin model, 1962
(Courtesy Science Photo)

General Electric Chemist Herman L. Finkbeiner Synthesizes Amino Acids, 1966
(Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives)