Oswald Avery in 1937
|Born||October 21, 1877
Halifax, Nova Scotia
|Died||February 20, 1955
|Institutions||Rockefeller University Hospital|
|Known for||DNA transmits heredity|
Oswald Theodore Avery ForMemRS (October 21, 1877 – February 20, 1955) was a Canadian-born American physician and medical researcher. The major part of his career was spent at the Rockefeller University Hospital in New York City. Avery was one of the first molecular biologists and a pioneer in immunochemistry, but he is best known for his discovery in 1944, with his co-workers Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty, that DNA is the material of which genes and chromosomes are made.
The Nobel laureate Arne Tiselius said that Avery was the most deserving scientist to not receive the Nobel Prize for his work, though he was nominated for the award throughout the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
Avery was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His father was a Baptist minister, who was invited to move to New York City in 1887 to lead a congregation. Avery received his AB degree in 1900 from Colgate University. He earned an M.D. degree from the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1904. He practiced medicine in New York City until 1907 when he became a researcher at Hoagland Laboratory in Brooklyn, New York. As an adult, Avery suffered from hyperthyroidism (Graves disease) and he underwent thyroid surgery in 1934. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1936.
For many years, genetic information was thought to be contained in cell protein. Continuing the research done by Frederick Griffith in 1927, Avery worked with MacLeod and McCarty on the mystery of inheritance. He had received emeritus status from the Rockefeller Institute in 1943, but continued working for five years, proving that not all breakthrough discoveries are achieved by younger people (by this time he was in his late sixties). Techniques were available to remove various organic compounds from bacteria, and if the remaining organic compounds were still able to cause R strain bacteria to transform then the substances removed could not be the carrier of genes. S strain bacteria first had the large cellular structures removed. Then they were treated with protease enzymes, which removed the proteins from the cells before the remainder was placed with R strain bacteria. The R strain bacteria transformed, meaning that proteins didn't carry the genes causing the disease. Then the remnants of the R strain bacteria were treated with a deoxyribonuclease enzyme which removed the DNA. After this treatment, the R strain bacteria no longer transformed. This indicated that DNA was the carrier of genes in cells.
Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase furthered Avery's research in 1952 with the Hershey-Chase experiment. These experiments paved the way for Watson and Crick's discovery of the helical structure of DNA, and thus the birth of modern genetics and molecular biology. Of this event, Avery wrote in a letter to his youngest brother Roy, a bacteriologist at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine: "It's lots of fun to blow bubbles but it's wiser to prick them yourself before someone else tries to." 
Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg stated that Avery and his laboratory provided "the historical platform of modern DNA research" and "betokened the molecular revolution in genetics and biomedical science generally."
The collected papers of Avery are stored in two locations: the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and the Rockefeller Archive. Many of his papers, poems, and hand written lab-notes are available at the National Library of Medicine in the Oswald T. Avery Collection, the first of their Profiles in Science series.
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- Stegenga, Jacob (2011). "The chemical characterization of the gene: vicissitudes of evidential assessment". History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 33 (1): 105–127. PMID 21789957.
- Kay, Alan (1970). "Avery, Oswald T.". Dictionary of Scientific Biography 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 342–343. ISBN 0-684-10114-9.
- Key Participants: Oswald T. Avery - Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA: A Documentary History
- Oswald Avery Papers finding aid at the Tennessee State Library and Archives
- Oswald T. Avery Collection (1912-2005) - National Library of Medicine finding aid
- The Oswald T. Avery COllection - Profiles in Science, National Library of Medicine
- National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir