January 2012

Retrospective: Har Gobind Khorana (1922 – 2011)

He mentored more than 150 postdoctoral fellows and several graduate students. A notable number of these scientists are now leaders in academia, biotechnology industries and government service. Gobind was a prodigious contributor to the scientific literature, with more than 450 original, refereed publications. After the synthesis of the alanine tRNA gene, an entire issue (Dec. 28, 1972) of the Journal of Molecular Biology was devoted to publishing a series of 13 of his papers; I can’t recall ever observing this feat by another scientist.

 

The beginning
Born in the village of Raipur, which was then nestled in India’s Punjab region and now within the bounds of Pakistan, Gobind was the youngest of five children. While his father was a Hindu tax clerk for the British colonial government and the family lived in poverty, Gobind once wrote that his was “practically the only literate family in the village of 100 people.” He repeatedly told stories of his early education from his teacher under a tree. Moreover,I remember his glee in telling me of his pride when his father gave him a pencil for one of his birthdays but then broke it in half and told him only to use half at a time.

His university training began at Punjab University, where he studied chemistry on a scholarship and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1943 and his master’s degree in 1945. He was admitted although he had been too shy to attend the required admissions interview. He earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Liverpool University in 1948 and then spent a year as a postdoctoral researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, now known as ETH Zurich. There, he secretly camped out in a lab until Cambridge University came through with some funds. For this further training in England, he worked with Lord Alexander Todd on the chemistry of small molecules. Cambridge had become a stronghold of protein and nucleic acid biochemistry; Watson and Crick would discover the double-helical structure of DNA in 1953.

Dedication
Always humble and hardworking, Gobind embodied dedication and drive. He treated his students and staff thoughtfully and fairly, and he demonstrated his loyalty to them time and again. Although quiet by nature, he was not timid when it came to upholding ideals and pursuing goals. In fact, I repeatedly saw him attack grand challenges that I was confident he had little idea how to solve, but I nonetheless trusted that he would succeed. He had tremendous scientific courage. This is a very rare trait in these days of limited funding, which strongly selects against such ambitious projects. He had high expectations for himself and his fellows.

His lectures were a model of organization and clarity. He always stressed the concept of informing his audience and not trying to impress them. And one of his favorite quotes, attributed to Otto Loewi, was, “We must be modest except in our aims.” I believe this sums up well a part of his philosophy.

His wonderful wife, Esther, who died in 2001, was his close love and helpmate; in fact, for some years, she was even his chauffeur, as he chose not to drive to keep his mind on his science. He is survived by his daughter Julia and son, Dave, and was predeceased in 1979 by his daughter Emily.

Gobind was famous for his long walks and talks, usually about science or nature, with friends and associates around the world. During one of my visits to his Rockport, Mass., retreat along with my wife, Dotty, we decided to walk into the hamlet for an afternoon tea; unfortunately, it was raining, but we proceeded anyway. On the entire two-hour walk, he happily recited a poem by heart with great gusto.

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