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The NIH Director

Tribute to Dr. Nirenberg from Dr. Collins

January 15, 2010

We have just learned of the death of one of science’s great titans, Marshall Nirenberg, M.D., a noted geneticist and winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He was the first NIH scientist to receive this honor.

Dr. Nirenberg, with co-winners Robert W. Holley and Har Gobind Khorana, was awarded the Nobel Prize in recognition "for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis." The world marveled as their work created a body of knowledge that forever changed human health, creating an explosion in the field of human genetics, and emphasizing the unity of all living things by their shared use of the same code. Marshall’s wish to explore turned into a revelation about biology that is almost unmatched in terms of its consequences for understanding of life.

Dr. Nirenberg also espoused many causes over his lifetime and recognized the important role played by science and scientists in society. With others, he propelled scientists to prominence as social and humanitarian advocates, not just in the prevention and treatment of disease, but as members of the world community at large, concerned with technology, the environment, politics, and economics.

Despite his reputation for modesty, Dr. Nirenberg inspired generations of students and scholars who devoted their careers to studying the "code of life," genetics, and neurobiology. He was not only a scientist’s scientist, but a mentor’s mentor. Over his life, he was awarded virtually every high honor reserved for science and medicine. Just last fall, in an occasion marked by a symposium in his honor, the American Chemical Society designated Dr. Nirenberg’s work as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

Whether or not you are familiar with Dr. Nirenberg’s work, I encourage you to spend a few moments exploring an NIH history exhibit devoted to Dr. Nirenberg’s landmark work. The module is available online at

I am sure that you join me in extending sincere sympathies to Marshall’s wife, Myrna Weissman, Ph.D., and to the entire Nirenberg family. With them, we mourn the loss of a true scientific hero.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., Director, National Institutes of Health

More Information

Dr. Marshall W. Nirenberg was awarded the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1968:

Marshall Nirenberg, M.D. is remembered as a noted geneticist and the first NIH scientist to win the 1968 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1968. Dr. Nirenberg shared the experience of his efforts with NIH co-workers to decipher the genetic code during the "Genes to Proteins: Decoding Genetic Information" Symposium on November 12, 2009 on the NIH campus. He was celebrated that day as his research was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society.

This page last reviewed on February 11, 2011

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