ASBMB Past Presidents

1910 – Thomas B. Osborne




Thomas Burr Osborne, born in New Haven, Connecticut, did both his undergraduate and graduate work at Yale University. After getting his Ph.D. in 1885, he joined the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station as an analytical chemist and also became a research associate of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., two positions he held until his death. He was also a research associate in biochemistry at Yale.

At the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, Osborne began an investigation into the proteins of plant seeds, which would eventually become his lifelong work. He started by studying oat kernels, from which he managed to isolate an alcohol soluble protein and a globulin. He turned to other seeds and, over the next 3 years, isolated proteins from at least 32 different plant species, including nuts, legumes, and cereal grains. Subjecting these proteins to intensive chemical analysis, he found that the proteins of different species were distinctly different from each other. These findings contradicted the widely accepted doctrine of Justus von Liebig that only four kinds of protein existed in nature: albumin, casein, fibrin, and gelatin. In 1909, Osborne started a collaboration with Lafayette B. Mendel in which they probed the nutritional properties of plant proteins. The two biochemists made a number of important discoveries. For example, they found that two amino acids in particular, lysine and tryptophan, were essential for the normal growth of animals. This work was featured in a Journal of Biological Chemistry Classic (1).

Osborne was quite active in the Society, serving as both vice president and president, and was a member of the first Journal of Biological Chemistry editorial board. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1910.

1. Simoni, R. D., Hill, R. L., and Vaughan, M. (2002) Nutritional biochemistry and the amino acid composition of proteins: The early years of protein chemistry. The work of Thomas B. Osborne and Lafayette B. Mendel. J. Biol. Chem. 277 (18)