December 2009

Charles Tanford (1921–2009)

Charles Tanford was a bracing and genial companion, and under the formidable exterior, a kind and generous man, ever willing to spend time explaining a tricky scientific point to a student or to anyone less intellectually agile. We will remember him with pleasure and gratitude. The following are thoughts and reflections from several of his friends and former colleagues.

When I was in graduate school, Charlie Tanford was one of my heroes. What I liked about Tanford’s work was that he was interested in big-picture questions and found meaningful ways to get insights. As far as I know, he invented the idea of hydrophobicity scales and was the first, with his associate Yashuiko Nozaki, to determine such a scale for amino acids. He developed simple conceptual models of micellization and protein stability based on such ideas.

Tanford wrote with outstanding clarity and simplicity. He composed another “bible” in the field, called “The Hydrophobic Effect,” in 1973, with very psychedelic 1970s lettering on the front cover. He once told me the story of how that book came about. In his early career, Tanford had been a protein chemist. Over time, his interests shifted to membrane proteins. He was simply looking for some rules for how to pick the right detergent for solubilizing membrane proteins so that he could then move forward and study them. He told me that, after 15 years, he never figured it out, but, even so, he wanted something to show for that effort, so he wrote that book.

Ken A. Dill
Professor of biophysics
University of California, San Francisco


Charles Tanford was one of the great pioneers of protein biophysical chemistry. His data and ideas in the large number of areas he ploughed stand the test of time. His work on the effects of denaturants on protein denaturation is the basis of modern kinetic studies on the mechanism of folding. In his honor, I named the “beta value” for the position of the transition state for folding on the reaction coordinate as defined by solvent accessible surface area, “βT .”

Alan Fersht
Herchel Smith professor of organic chemistry
University of Cambridge


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