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Marshall W. Nirenberg Papers

Identifier: MS C 566


Marshall W. Nirenberg is best known for his work on deciphering the genetic code by discovering the unique code words for the twenty major amino acids that make-up DNA, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1968. This collection of correspondence, laboratory administrative and research materials, and publications documents Nirenberg's career as a researcher in biochemical genetics at the National Institutes of Health.


  • 1937-2003 (bulk 1957-1997)


173 Linear Feet (160 boxes + oversize materials)


Physical Location

Materials stored onsite. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine

Language of Materials

Collection materials primarily in English


Portions of the collection are restricted. Contact the Reference Staff for information regarding access.

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Biographical Note

Marshall Warren Nirenberg was born in New York City on April 10, 1927, to Harry and Minerva (Bykowsky) Nirenberg. In 1941, young Marshall developed rheumatic fever, so the Nirenberg family moved to Orlando, Florida to take advantage of the subtropical climate. Surrounded by "a natural paradise," during his teens Nirenberg developed a scientific and aesthetic appreciation for the natural world and became an adept observer of plant life, insects, and birds. He captured these observations through carefully written and maintained notes; these sketches and notes presaged a career in which scientific diaries filled with thorough documentation provided a constant source of inspiration for research and analysis.

In 1945, Nirenberg graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Florida in Gainesville, earning his B.S. degree in zoology and chemistry in 1948. In 1950, he resumed his studies at Florida and took a M.S. degree in zoology in 1952, writing a master's thesis on caddis flies. Later that year, Nirenberg moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan. He earned a Ph.D. in biological chemistry in 1957 by writing a dissertation on the uptake of hexose, a type of sugar, by tumor cells. This work served as the basis of his first published article and shaped the direction of his initial studies after graduate school. Later that year, the American Cancer Society awarded Nirenberg a two-year postdoctoral fellowship to the laboratory of DeWitt Stetten Jr. at the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Diseases (NIAMDD), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. He continued his work as a postdoctoral fellow of the Public Health Service's Section on Metabolic Enzymes at NIAMDD before joining the staff as a research biochemist in 1960.

In 1959, Nirenberg began his investigations into the relationship between deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), ribonucleic acid (RNA) and the production of proteins. With J. Heinrich Matthaei, a young postdoctoral researcher from Bonn, Germany, he initiated a series of experiments using synthetic RNA. These two researchers were able to show how RNA transmits the "messages" that are encoded in DNA and direct how amino acids combine to make proteins. These experiments became the foundation of Nirenberg's groundbreaking work on the genetic code, which he first made public at the International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow in August 1961. By early 1962, the significance of these early experiments was recognized throughout the world, after the popular media highlighted the importance of their work as a major scientific breakthrough. As a result, less than one year after he had first announced his successful experiment with synthetic RNA, Nirenberg received the Molecular Biology Award from the National Academy of Sciences.

During this same period, Nirenberg was offered professorships at a number of major universities across the United States. He also was offered a research position with Francois Jacob--who would become the 1965 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine--at the Institut Pasteur, one of the world's leading centers of molecular genetics. Nirenberg, however, declined all offers and chose to stay at the National Institutes of Health, believing that a steady annual research budget would enable him to remain devoted to his work rather than spend his time pursuing outside grants. In 1962, he was appointed Chief of the Section on Biochemical Genetics at the NIH's National Heart Institute (NHI).

After Matthaei's departure from the NIH in 1962, Nirenberg continued his work on the genetic code with a team of postdoctoral fellows and research technicians. By 1966, Nirenberg had deciphered all the RNA "codons"--the term used to describe the "code words" of messenger RNA--for all twenty major amino acids. Two years later, in 1968, Nirenberg received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis." He shared the award with Robert W. Holley of Cornell University and Har Gobind Khorana of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Despite his successes, by the time he won the Nobel Prize Nirenberg had turned from research on the genetic code to the field of neurobiology. He chose neurobiology because it is the only other biological system besides the genetic code that is designed for information processing. DNA processes genetic information, and the brain processes mental information. The new scientific arena gave him the freedom to ask new questions, solve new problems, and explore new biological puzzles. Nirenberg would devote the next thirty years of his scientific career to the investigation of various aspects of neurobiology, including neural cell receptors and Homeobox genes.

Dr. Nirenberg has been honored for his work by many prestigious scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Gairdner Foundation, and the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Nirenberg the National Medal of Science in 1966 and the National Medal of Honor in 1968. He is an active member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a part of the Vatican. Since 1966 Nirenberg has maintained his current position as Senior Research Biochemist and Chief of the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics at the NHI, later named the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. He also serves as a research professor in molecular and cell biology at the University of Maryland at College Park, and as an adjunct professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at The George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. In 2001, Dr. Nirenberg was elected to the American Philosophical Society.

Brief Chronology

Born Marshall Warren Nirenberg in New York, New York (April 10)
Nirenberg family moved to Orlando, Florida
Received B.S. (Zoology and Chemistry), University of Florida at Gainesville
Received M.S. (Zoology), University of Florida
Received Ph.D. (Biological Chemistry), University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellow, National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolic, and Digestive Diseases [NIAMDD, later NIDDK], National Institutes of Health [NIH]
Public Health Service Postdoctoral Fellow, NIAMDD; began examining the relationship between DNA, RNA, and protein production
Research Biochemist, NIAMDD; began poly-U experiments with Heinrich Matthaei
Married Perola Zaltzman (deceased 2001) in July
Described the poly-U experiment at Fifth International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow in August, related article published in October
Molecular Biology Award, National Academy of Sciences
Chief, Section on Biochemical Genetics, National Heart Institute [NHI], NIH
Completed sequencing of RNA "code words" for twenty amino acids
Turned attention and laboratory over to field of neurobiology
Senior Research Biochemist and Chief, Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics, NHI
Began studying the neuroblastoma system
Shared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for deciphering the genetic code with Robert W. Holley and Har Gobind Khorana
Awarded National Medal of Science by President Lyndon B. Johnson
Published first article on neurobiology in collaboration with Philip Nelson
Began studying the effects of morphine on the nervous system in collaboration with Werner Klee
Began work on neural cell receptors using chick retina
Began study of Homeobox genes in Drosophila fruit fly
Elected to American Philosophical Society
Symposium honoring Nirenberg held at NIH


Award in the Biological Sciences, Washington Academy of Sciences
Molecular Biology Award, National Academy of Sciences
Medal, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
Harrison Howe Award, American Chemical Society
Paul-Lewis Award in Enzyme Chemistry, American Chemical Society
John Young Award, Florida
National Medal of Science, President Lyndon B. Johnson
Hildebrand Award, American Chemical Society
Research Corporation Award
American College of Physicians Award
Gairdner Foundation Award, Canada
Prix Charles Leopold Mayer, French Academy of Sciences
Distinguished Service Medal, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
Franklin Medal, Franklin Institute
Joseph Priestley Award, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania
Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research
Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, Columbia University
National Medal of Honor, President Lyndon B. Johnson
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (shared with Robert W. Holley and Har Gobind Khorana)
City of Peace Award
George Cotzias Memorial Award Lecture, American Society of Neurology
A. Ross McIntyre Award, University of Nebraska College of Medicine

Editorial Appointments

  1. Analytical Biochemistry
  2. Annual Review of Biochemistry
  3. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology
  4. Journal of Neurogenetics
  5. Korean Journal of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
  6. Molecular Neurobiology

Honorary Degrees

University of Chicago
University of Michigan
Yale University
University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada)
University of Pennsylvania
Harvard University
University of Florida
George Washington University
University of Pavia (Italy)
Weizmann Institute (Israel)
State University of New York at Albany
West Virginia State College
Union University, Albany College of Pharmacy


  1. American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  2. American Association for the Advancement of Science
  3. American Chemical Society
  4. American Institute of Chemists
  5. American Neurochemistry Society
  6. American Neurological Association
  7. American Philosophical Society
  8. American Society of Biological Chemistry
  9. American Society of Biological Chemists
  10. Biophysical Society
  11. European Academy of Sciences and Arts
  12. Federation of American Scientists
  13. Harvey Society
  14. International Society for Neuroimmunomodulation
  15. National Academy of Medicine
  16. National Academy of Sciences
  17. Pontifical Academy of Sciences
  18. Sigma Xi
  19. Society for Developmental Biology
  20. Society for Neuroscience
  21. Washington Academy of Sciences

Collection Summary

Correspondence, experimental data, laboratory administration material, publications and manuscripts, photographs, research notes and notebooks, and audiovisual material (1937-2003 [bulk 1957-1997]; 171 linear feet) document Marshall W. Nirenberg's career as a researcher in biochemical genetics at the National Institutes of Health.

Series 3: Lab Administration and Series 4: Lab Research comprise the bulk of the collection. Together the materials in these series paint a comprehensive and detailed portrait of the laboratory's activities. Nirenberg became Head of the National Heart Institute's Section on Biochemical Genetics in 1962. The lab later became the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics (LBG) of the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute (NHBLI), with Nirenberg becoming its Chief and Research Biochemist, a position he has held since 1966. The collection contains a wealth of material regarding the supervision of the LBG, particularly in Series 3: Lab Administration. This series consists mainly of daily books, compiled by Nirenberg and his staff, which detail the everyday operations of the LBG; usually housed within three-ring binders, these volumes contain correspondence, research notes, various lists, conference programs, and other sundry materials received by the lab staff. Daily books exist from the late 1960s until the mid 1990s, providing a long-term view of the lab's operations. Similar materials are to be found in the General Files sub-series.

The collection also chronicles the LBG's shift in focus away from the study of the genetic code to that of neurobiology, reflecting Nirenberg's evolving research interests. The lab diaries, notes, notebooks, and photography within Series 4: Lab Research and the lab's annual reports in Series 3: Lab Administration detail these shifts, which began around 1966 and occurred every few years as Nirenberg explored new research avenues. Written works produced by the LBG also expanded, resulting in a large body of publications by LBG staff and a collection of reprints on various topics annotated by Nirenberg and his staff through the years. In Series 5: Writings, researchers can find these same works as manuscript drafts and reprints.

Best known for his Nobel Prize-winning work on the genetic code, Nirenberg began that career in 1957 when he took a position as a postdoctoral fellow in the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Diseases (NIAMDD). His work with J. Heinrich Matthaei to investigate the relationship between DNA and RNA and their successful cracking of the genetic code in 1961 is well documented by this collection. Nirenberg and Matthaei revealed the role of RNA to the world through an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1961 and again at the Fifth International Congress of Biochemistry in Moscow a few months later. Series 5: Writings includes drafts and reprints of that article, while Series 2: Correspondence contains the dozens of reprint requests Nirenberg and Matthaei received from colleagues worldwide. In addition, Nirenberg's notes for the Moscow presentation are located in Series 6: Professional Activities, which also includes other speeches and presentations delivered by Nirenberg throughout his career. Series 4: Lab Research contains the early notebooks created by Nirenberg and colleagues during the genetic code experiments, as well as the original genetic code chart he and his staff compiled as they worked to decipher the code words which comprise the genetic language.

Nirenberg received the Nobel Prize in 1968 for his work on the genetic code. Materials related to this award, while scarce, do exist within the collection. Series 1: Personal and Biographical includes copies of the notification telegram Nirenberg received as well as drafts of his speech. This series also features articles and clippings regarding the experiments as well as the award. Researchers can find a few photographs and audiovisual recordings of the ensuing celebrations and the Nobel awards ceremony in the Photographs Series (VII) and the Audiovisual Series (VIII).

While the collection is strong in its documentation of Nirenberg's professional career, materials related to his personal life are relatively scarce. The Personal and Biographical Series contains a handful of Nirenberg biographies from Who's Who and other publications as well as his curriculum vitae from circa 1961 to 2000. That series also features over a dozen notebooks from Nirenberg's undergraduate and graduate school careers and copies of both his master's thesis and his Ph. D. dissertation. The Photographs Series (VII), while small, includes several personal photographs of Nirenberg with his family, friends and colleagues over the years, and Series 8: Audiovisual contains reminiscences of Nirenberg in the form of oral history interviews with Nirenberg and former postdoctoral researchers from his lab.


Marshall W. Nirenberg is best known for his work on deciphering the genetic code by discovering the unique code words for the twenty major amino acids that make-up DNA, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1968. This collection of correspondence, laboratory administrative and research materials, and publications documents Nirenberg's career as a researcher in biochemical genetics at the National Institutes of Health.

Physical Location

Materials stored onsite. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine


Gift, Marshall W. Nirenberg, in multiple accessions between 1997-2004.

Alternate Forms Available

Portions of the Collection have been digitized and are available at:


Processed by
Digital Manuscripts Program Staff
Processing Completed
Encoded by
Michele M. Tourney


Appendix A: Photographs Located in Prints and Photographs Collection

  1. [Marshall W. Nirenberg receiving the Nobel Prize, 1968]
  2. Marshall Nirenberg's Nobel Prize medal and citation, [1968] - Order No. A018377
  3. [1968 Award Winner - Marshall W. Nirenberg] - Order No. B09646
  4. [Nobel laureate, Marshall Nirenberg with President Johnson and others, circa 1968] - Order No. A030286
  5. [Marshall W. Nirenberg] - Order No. B030075
  6. [Dr. Marshall Nirenberg in office with chalkboard and molecular models] - Order No. B010264
  7. [Marshall W. Nirenberg in office with chalkboard and molecular models] - Order No. B030099
  8. [Marshall W. Nirenberg with molecular models] - Order No. B030076
  9. [Marshall W. Nirenberg seated at desk] / Photo by G.V. Hecht. - Order No. B030077
  10. [Marshall W. Nirenberg seated at desk] / Photo by G.V. Hecht. - Order No. B030078
  11. Breaking the genetic code [poster] - Order No. A025367


Appendix B: Audiovisual Items Located in Historic Audiovisual Collection

  1. "Best of neuroblastoma time lapse photography," 1960; 16mm AP, 7 minutes [QZ 380 MP16 no. 1 1960]
  2. "Nobel Prize celebration in honor of Marshall W. Nirenberg," 1968; 16mm AP, 21 minutes [WZ 100 MP16 no. 1 1968]
  3. "The National Institutes of Health: a short history," 1982; 3/4" U-matic, 8 minutes [WA 24 VC no. 3 1982]
  4. "Genetically engineered insulin: ten year perspective," 1988, 3/4" U-matic, 5 hours 29 minutes [WK 820 VC no. 14 1988]
  5. "It takes each of us, it takes all of us," 1988, VHS, 43 minutes [W 24 VC no. 2 1988]
  6. "The N2K homeobox gene and the early development of the central nervous system," 1995, BetacamSP, 107 minutes [WL 300 VC no. 64 1995]
  7. "Neurobiology," 1999, VHS, 56 minutes [WL 100 VC no. 14 1999]
  8. "Marshall Nirenberg interview," 2002, Digital Betacam, 34 minutes [WZ 100 VC no. 345 2002]
  9. "Nirenberg interview," 2002, MiniDV, 56 minutes [WZ 100 VC no. 352 2002]
  10. "Dr. Julius Axelrod," 2003, BetacamSP, 92 minutes [WZ 100 VC no. 270 2003]
Finding Aid to the Marshall W. Nirenberg Papers, 1937-2003 (bulk 1957-1997)
Unverified Partial Draft
Digital Manuscripts Program Staff
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English
Edition statement

Collecting Area Details

Part of the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection Collecting Area

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