Gerald M. Edelman, M.D., Ph.D.

Gerald M. Edelman

 Brief Bio

Gerald Maurice Edelman was born in New York City on July 1, 1929, Edelman earned his B.S. in chemistry at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania (1950), and his M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania (1954). He served as house officer at the Massachusetts General Hospital for one year before enlisting in the Army Medical Corps in 1955. It was while serving as an army physician in Paris, where he was exposed to the cutting-edge research in molecular biology then underway at the Sorbonne, that Edelman first developed his interest in immunology in general and the study of antibodies in particular.

After leaving the army, Edelman began graduate work in immunology and biochemistry under Henry Kunkel (AAI '62, president 1974–75) at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City. He earned his Ph.D. in 1960, writing his dissertation on methods of splitting immunoglobulins. He remained at Rockefeller and joined the faculty as an assistant and then associate dean of graduate studies before becoming a full professor at the recently renamed Rockefeller University in 1966. He founded the Neurosciences Institute there in 1981. After 32 years on the faculty at the Rockefeller University, Edelman left New York for California in 1992 to accept a position as professor of neurobiology at the Scripps Research Institute, bringing the Neurosciences Institute with him the following year.

Known for an exceptionally wide-ranging intellect, Edelman has had a lifelong interest in music. Though the son of a physician, he was more interested in music than science in his early years and studied violin under a former classmate of Jascha Heifetz. Only when he realized as a teenager that he did not want to be a performer and, as he put it, "had no gift" for composition, did he decide to become a scientist.

 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

1972 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Rodney R. Porter (AAI '73) “for their discoveries concerning the chemical structure of antibodies.”

 AAI Service History

Joined: 1970

 Nobel Prize in Science

Gerald M. Edelman, Neurosciences Institute, San Diego, was awarded the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with Rodney R. Porter (AAI '73) for their related but independent work on the molecular structure of antibodies. Although scientists had studied antibodies since the late nineteenth century, their understanding of how antibodies functioned remained vague in the 1950s. When Porter and Edelman each announced that he had succeeded in splitting antibodies into fragments in 1959, they opened new avenues of research in the field of molecular immunology.

Edelman made several major contributions to the understanding of antibody structure. After correctly hypothesizing that antibodies consisted of multiple amino acid chains held together by disulfide bonds, he split antibodies by dissolving these bonds and identified their component light and heavy chains. He then identified the domain structure of both the light and heavy chains, consisting of the antigen-binding (variable) regions and effector function-conferring (constant) regions. Finally, he produced the first complete sequence of the amino acids that comprise an antibody, providing great insight into the structure and function of antibodies. Edelman's work began to address the mystery of the extraordinary variety in binding specificities that exist in antibodies, despite the fact that all antibodies share a single basic structure.

Edelman expanded his research to include the brain in the late 1970s, applying many of the insights he had gleaned from the structure of antibodies to neuroscience. In an interview, Edelman explained what might on the surface have appeared to be his radical change in research focus: "There's something cognate or similar in the brain and in immunology—namely your brain is also a recognition system. So you might call evolution, development, immunology . . . and brain science [all] sciences of recognition. They deal with the problem of how a thing, without any foreknowledge, can match another thing, either an environment, or an antigen or a nerve impulse or what have you."

Through his fundamental work on the structure of antibodies, Edelman helped lay "a theoretical foundation for immunology which is having wide repercussions in the understanding of disease and its prevention," said immunologist John H. Humphrey (AAI '63) of Britain's National Institute of Medical Research at the time the Nobel was awarded. Antibodies are used today as tools in myriad applications in immunological research, and the range of monoclonal antibodies being developed as therapeutics has skyrocketed since the first such antibody, the CD3-specific molecule muromonab, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1986. In his Nobel presentation speech, Sven Gard of the Karolinska Institute commented on the far-reaching impact of Edelman's and Porter's work: "These discoveries incited an intense activity in laboratories in the four corners of the world. Apparently there existed a latent need for immunochemical research that could not be satisfied until [Edelman and Porter] had opened the way and provided the means."

 Awards and Honors

  • Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry, 1965
  • Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1968
  • Member, National Academy of Sciences, 1969
  • Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1972
  • Albert Einstein Commemorative Award, 1974
  • Buchman Memorial Award, California Institute of Technology, 1975
  • Member, American Philosophical Society, 1977
  • Foreign member, French Academy of Sciences, 1978
  • Sesquicentennial Commemorative Award, National Library of Medicine, 1986
  • Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Republic, 1999

 Institutional/Biographical Links