Marshall W. Nirenberg
Laboratory of Biochemistry and Metabolism National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases,National Institutes of Health
Nirenberg was born in New York City, the son of Minerva (Bykowsky) and Harry Edward Nirenberg, a shirtmaker. He developed rheumatic fever as a boy, so the family moved to Orlando, Florida to take advantage of the subtropical climate. He developed an early interest in biology. In 1948 he received his B.S. degree, and in 1952, a master's degree in zoology from the University of Florida at Gainesville where he was also a member of the Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity. His dissertation for the Master's thesis was an ecological and taxonomic study of caddis flies (Trichoptera). He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1957. He began his postdoctoral work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1957 as a fellow of the American Cancer Society in what was then called the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases. In 1959 he became a research biochemist at the NIH and began to study the steps that relate DNA, RNA and protein. Nirenberg's groundbreaking experiments advanced him to become the head of the Section of Biochemical Genetics in 1962 in the National Heart Institute (now the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute), where he remained a laboratory chief until his death. Fellow laboratory chiefs included Ernst Freese and Daniel Carleton Gajdusek. He was married in 1961 to Perola Zaltzman, a chemist from the University of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, who also worked at NIH and died in 2001. Nirenberg married Myrna M. Weissman, Ph.D., Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 2005. He had four stepchildren: Susan Weissman of Evanston, Illinois, Judith Weissman of New York, New York, Sharon Weissman of New Haven, Connecticut, and Jonathan Weissman of San Francisco, California. He is also survived by his sister, Joan Nirenberg Geiger of Dallas, TX, several nieces and a nephew. Nirenberg was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1964 and the National Medal of Honor in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1981, Nirenberg became a founding member of the World Cultural Council. In 1986, Nirenberg's achievements and contributions to the field of biochemistry genetics was recognized at an event honoring Maimonides and Menachem M. Schneerson, in the nation's capital, hosted by Bob Dole and Joe Biden. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2001. He died on January 15, 2010, from cancer after several months of illness.