Alexander Rich, 1924 – 2015

Alexander Rich of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology biology department, a biophysicist who contributed pioneering research on the structure of DNA and RNA, died in April in Boston. He was 90.

Born on Nov. 15, 1924, in Hartford, Conn., to Russian immigrants, Rich eventually moved to Springfield, Mass., where he attended Springfield Technical High School. Although accepted at Harvard College, Rich delayed his studies to enter the U.S. Navy’s officer training program during World War II. While in the program, Rich was sent to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Syracuse University Medical School.

Discharged in 1946, Rich went to Harvard, where he earned his undergraduate degree in biochemical sciences in 1947 and a medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1949. Subsequently, Rich became a research fellow in the laboratory of future Nobel laureate Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology. He stayed at Pauling’s lab until 1954 and arrived at MIT in 1958, where he worked for the rest of his career.

Although it was James Watson and Francis Crick who famously produced the double helical model of DNA in 1953, Rich’s groundbreaking work contributed to a deeper understanding of DNA and RNA structure. In 1973, Rich employed X-ray crystallography to produce a clear, distinct image of the double helix. Watson and Crick’s model was widely accepted by this time, and Rich’s images helped confirm the model.

In 1979, Rich led a team of MIT researchers that discovered Z-DNA, a different form of DNA that spirals left instead of right and has a zigzag backbone. Additionally, Rich contributed to the discovery of the three-dimensional, triple-helical structure of collagen, the main structural protein of skin and connective tissue.

Rich received numerous awards throughout his career, including the National Medal of Science award from President Clinton in 1995, the highest scientific honor bestowed by the federal government.

Erik Chaulk Erik Chaulk is a peer-review coordinator at the ASBMB.