ASBMB Past Presidents

1957 – John T. Edsall




John Tileston Edsall was president of the American Society of Biological Chemists in 1957. At that time he was at Harvard College, an institution with which he had been associated since enrolling there at age 16 to study chemistry. After earning his bachelor's degree from Harvard he entered Harvard Medical School and then continued on as a research fellow after receiving his M.D. Eventually Edsall progressed to professor of biological chemistry. In 1954, however, he joined Harvard College as a member of the Faculty of Arts and Science and moved to the biological laboratories. He became emeritus in 1973 and remained as such for more than 20 years.

Edsall's research career spanned the major years of protein discovery and characterization. Early on, he realized the essential biological role of proteins and recognized that physical chemistry was crucial to understanding their structure and functions. Included in his many important contributions to protein science are Edsall's studies of the biophysical properties of amino acids and peptides and his discovery that amino acids occur as doubly charged ions in solution. He and Edwin J. Cohn summarized these findings in Proteins, Amino Acids, and Peptides, as Ions and Dipolar Ions, a volume that became a classic in defining this new field. During World War II, Edsall played a key role in isolating various blood proteins and using them in vital roles. He also spent a good portion of his career studying carbonic anhydrase and elucidated its catalyzation of CO2 with water to form bicarbonate. Toward the end of his life, Edsall became involved in social issues relating to science and published nearly 80 articles on the history and social responsibilities of science. His work was featured as a Journal of Biological Chemistry Classic (1).

In addition to being actively involved in research, Edsall served as editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry from 1958 to 1967, during which he guided the journal through a watershed period of very rapid expansion in both the number and types of articles published. He also cofounded the review series Advances in Protein Chemistry and coedited it for 55 years, and was chairman of the Commission of Editors of Biochemical Journals of the International Union of Biochemistry. Edsall was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1951 and also served on the editorial board of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

1. Simoni, R. D., Hill, R. L., and Vaughan, M. (2002) John T. Edsall: Biochemist, teacher, Journal of Biological Chemistry editor, and responsible scientist. J. Biol. Chem. 277, 29351–29353