Walter Gilbert

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Walter Gilbert
Walter Gilbert HD2008 portrait.JPG
Walter Gilbert in 2008
Born (1932-03-21) March 21, 1932 (age 83)
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Nationality U.S.
Institutions Harvard University
Alma mater
Thesis On generalised dispersion relations and meson-nucleon scattering (1958)
Doctoral advisor Abdus Salam
Doctoral students
Notable awards
Spouse Celia Stone (m. 1953)[2]
Children 2[2]

Walter Gilbert (born March 21, 1932) is an American biochemist, physicist, molecular biology pioneer, and Nobel laureate.[2][3][4]

Education and early life[edit]

Walter Gilbert was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 21, 1932, the son of Emma (Cohen), a child psychologist, and Richard V. Gilbert, an economist.[3][5] He was educated at the Sidwell Friends School, and attended Harvard University for undergraduate and graduate studies, earning a baccalaureate in chemistry and physics in 1953 and a master's degree in physics in 1954.[3] He studied for his doctorate at the University of Cambridge, where he earned a Ph.D in Physics supervised by the Nobel laureate Abdus Salam in 1957.[3][6]

Career and research[edit]

Gilbert returned to Harvard in 1956 and was appointed assistant professor of physics in 1959.[3] Gilbert's wife Celia had begun working for James Watson, and this led to Gilbert becoming interested in problems in molecular biology. Watson and Gilbert would run their laboratory jointly through most of the 1960s, until Watson left for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.[7] In 1964 he was promoted to associate professor of biophysics and promoted again in 1968 to professor of biochemistry.[3]

He is a co-founder of the biotech start-up companies Biogen and Myriad Genetics, and was the first chairman on their respective boards of directors. Gilbert left his position at Harvard to run Biogen as CEO, but was later asked to resign by the company's board of directors.[8] He is also a member of the Board of Scientific Governors at The Scripps Research Institute. Gilbert has served as the chairman of the Harvard Society of Fellows.

Gilbert was an early proponent of sequencing the human genome. At a March 1986 meeting in Santa Fe New Mexico he proclaimed "The total human sequence is the grail of human genetics". In 1987, he proposed starting a company called Genome Corporation to sequence the genome and sell access to the information.[8] In an opinion piece in Nature in 1991, he envisioned completion of the human genome sequence transforming biology into a field in which computer databases would be as essential as laboratory reagents[9]

Gilbert returned to Harvard in 1985.[10] Gilbert was an outspoken critic of David Baltimore in the handling of the scientific fraud accusations against Thereza Imanishi-Kari.[11] Gilbert also joined the early controversy over the cause of AIDS,[12] though he later stated he was satisfied with the evidence that disease is caused by HIV[citation needed].

In 1962, Gilbert's Ph.D. student in physics Gerald Guralnik extended Gilbert's work on massless particles; Guralnik's work on is widely recognized as an important thread in the discovery of the Higgs Boson.[13]

With his Ph.D. student Benno Müller-Hill, Gilbert was the first to purify the lac repressor,[14] just beating out Mark Ptashne for purifying the first gene regulatory protein.[15]

Together with Allan Maxam, Gilbert developed a new DNA sequencing method[16][17] using chemical methods developed by Andrei Mirzabekov. His approach to the first synthesis of insulin via recombinant DNA lost out to Genentech's approach which used genes built up from the nucleotides rather than from natural sources. Gilbert's effort was hampered by a temporary moratorium on recombinant DNA work in Cambridge, Massachusetts, forcing his group to move their work to an English biological weapons site.[18]

Gilbert first proposed the existence of introns and exons and explained the evolution of introns in a seminal 1978 "News and Views" paper published in Nature.[19] In 1986, Gilbert proposed the RNA world hypothesis for the origin of life,[20] based on a concept first proposed by Carl Woese in 1967.

Awards and honors[edit]

Walter Gilbert portrait via the National Library of Medicine

In 1969, Gilbert was awarded Harvard's Ledlie Prize.[3] In 1972 he was named American Cancer Society Professor of Molecular Biology.[3] In 1979, Gilbert was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University together with Frederick Sanger.[3][21] That year he was also awarded the Gairdner Prize and the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research.[3]

Gilbert was awarded the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, shared with Frederick Sanger and Paul Berg. Gilbert and Sanger were recognized for their pioneering work in devising methods for determining the sequence of nucleotides in a nucleic acid.

Gilbert has also been honored by the National Academy of Sciences (US Steel Foundation Award, 1968); Massachusetts General Hospital (Warren Triennial Prize, 1977);[citation needed] the New York Academy of Sciences; (Louis and Bert Freedman Foundation Award, 1977), the Academie des Sciences of France (Prix Charles-Leopold Mayer Award, 1977).[3] Gilbert was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1987.[3][22][23]

In 2002, he received the Biotechnology Heritage Award.[24][25]

Personal life[edit]

Gilbert married Celia Stone in 1953 and has two children.[2] After retiring from Harvard in 2001, Gilbert has launched an artistic career centered around digital photography.[10]


  1. ^ Church, G.; Gilbert, W. (1984). "Genomic sequencing". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 81 (7): 1991–1995. doi:10.1073/pnas.81.7.1991. PMC 345422. PMID 6326095. 
  2. ^ a b c d Nobel Prize autobiography: Walter Gilbert
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Shampo MA, Kyle RA (May 2003). "Walter Gilbert--1980 Nobel Prize for Chemistry". Mayo Clin. Proc. 78 (5): 588. doi:10.4065/78.5.588. PMID 12744546. 
  4. ^ Walter Gilbert's publications indexed by the Scopus bibliographic database, a service provided by Elsevier.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Gilbert, Walter (1958). On generalised dispersion relations and meson-nucleon scattering (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. OCLC 879396761. 
  7. ^ Watson, James D. (2003). Genes, Girls and Gamow. 
  8. ^ a b Kanigel, Robert (December 13, 1987). "The Genome Project". The New York Times Magazine. 
  9. ^ Gilbert, Walter (1991). "Towards a paradigm shift in biology". Nature 349 (6305): 99. Bibcode:1991Natur.349...99G. doi:10.1038/349099a0. 
  10. ^ a b Johnson, Carolyn Y. (March 13, 2015). "A physicist, biologist, Nobel laureate, CEO, and now, artist". The Boston Globe. 
  11. ^ Kolata, Gina (June 25, 1996). "Inquiry lacking due process". The New York Times Books. 
  12. ^ Cohen, Jon (December 9, 1984). "The Duesberg Phenomenon" (PDF). Science 266: 1643–1644. PMID 7992043. 
  13. ^ Close, Frank (2013). The Infinity Puzzle: The Personalities, Politics and Extraordinary Science Behind the Higgs Boson. Oxford University Press. pp. 146–147. 
  14. ^ Gilbert, Walter; Müller-Hill, Benno (December 1966). "Isolation of the lac repressor". PNAS 56 (6): 1891–1898. PMID 16591435. 
  15. ^ Ptashne, Mark (February 1967). "Isolation of the lambda phage repressor". PNAS 57 (2): 306–313. PMID 16591470. 
  16. ^ Allan, Maxam; Walter, Gilbert (1980). "Sequencing end-labeled DNA with base-specific chemical cleavages". Methods in Enzymology 65 (1): 499-560. PMID 6246368. 
  17. ^ Maxam, A.; Gilbert, W. (1977). "A new method for sequencing DNA". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 74 (2): 560–564. doi:10.1073/pnas.74.2.560. PMC 392330. PMID 265521. 
  18. ^ Hall, Stephen S. (1987). Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene. Atlantic Monthly Press. 
  19. ^ Gilbert, Walter (February 9, 1978). "Why genes in pieces". Nature 271 (5645): 501. Bibcode:1978Natur.271..501G. doi:10.1038/271501a0. 
  20. ^ Gilbert, W. (1986). "Origin of life: The RNA world". Nature 319 (6055): 618–618. Bibcode:1986Natur.319..618G. doi:10.1038/319618a0. 
  21. ^ Brownlee, George G. (2015). "Frederick Sanger CBE CH OM. 13 August 1918 — 19 November 2013". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (Royal Society publishing) 61. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2015.0013. ISSN 0080-4606. 
  22. ^ "Professor Walter Gilbert ForMemRS". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-09-22. 
  23. ^ "Fellowship of the Royal Society 1660-2015". Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-07-15. 
  24. ^ "Past Winners of the Biotechnology Heritage Award". Chemical Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  25. ^ "Paratek Pharmaceuticals Chairman and Co-Founder Dr. Walter Gilbert Receives Heritage Award at BIO 2002". PR NewsWire. 10 June 2002. Retrieved 5 February 2014.