Robert W. Holley
Robert W. Holley was born in Urbana, Illinois, in 1922. He received a B.A.
in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1942, and a Ph.D. in organic
chemistry from Cornell University in
1947. He also spent two years at Cornell University Medical College, where he
participated in the first chemical synthesis of penicillin. After two years as
an American Chemical Society Postdoctoral Fellow at
Washington State University, Holley returned
to Cornell University as an assistant professor of organic chemistry at the
Geneva Experiment Station. In 1957 Holley began as a research chemist at the
USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory on the Cornell campus. The majority of
his Nobel Prize-winning research was conducted at the ARS laboratory between
1957 and 1964.
Holley rejoined the faculty of Cornell University in 1964 as professor of
biochemistry and molecular biology, and was chairman of the department from
1965 to 1966. In 1966, he moved to the Salk
Institute and the
in La Jolla, California, and in 1968 joined the Salk Institute as a resident
fellow and professor of molecular biology.
The New York Times summarized Holley's award-winning research in his
"Dr. Holley was the first to unravel the internal structure in a strand
of RNA, which helps determine what form and role each cell takes in a larger
organism. Under the RNA's direction, building blocks of proteins become flower
petals, fingernails, butterfly wings and every other living thing."
"The specific substance he analyzed was alanine transfer RNA,
painstakingly derived from yeast. It took three years to isolate a 30th of an
ounce of the material from 200 pounds of yeast and another four years to
decipher the exact sequence of key ingredients in its 77 subunits. His findings
were reported in a two-sentence abstract in a scientific journal in 1965:
"The complete nucleotide sequence of an alanine transfer RNA, isolated
from yeast, has been determined. This is the first nucleic acid for which the
structure is known."
"The discovery was soon hailed as a breakthrough in understanding the
basic chemistry of life."
In 1968, Holley received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his
researchthe only ARS scientist to receive a Nobel Prize. He also received
several other honors in his career, including the Albert Lasker Award in Basic
Medical Research, the USDA Distinguished Service Award, and the
National Academy of Sciences U.S. Steel
Holley died in Los Gatos, California, on February 11, 1993.