The 1978 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded to Daniel Nathans for his role in "the discovery of restriction enzymes and their application to problems of molecular genetics," being the first major tool of the genetics revolution and central to the field of molecular biology.
NATHANS, Daniel (1928-1999). Nobel Prize Medal in Physiology or Medicine awarded to Daniel Nathans in 1978. 23 carat gold, 66mm diameter, 206.8 grams (6.65 oz.). Profile bust of Alfred Nobel facing left on obverse, with “ALFR. NOBEL” at left and his dates in roman numerals at right, signed along lower edge “E. Lindberg 1902,” reverse with allegorical vignette depicting the figure of Medicine, with an open book on her lap, collecting water from a spring to quench an ailing girl’s thirst, signed at right “E. Lindberg,” legend “Inventas vitam iuvat excoluisse per artes” around top, engraved “D. Nathans / MCMLXXVIII” on lower plaque between the caption “Reg Universitas – Med Chir Carol”; housed in the original red morocco gilt case, lettered “Daniel Nathans,” interior lined in suede and satin. WITH: Daniel Nathans’s 1978 Nobel Prize Diploma, two leaves, 333 x 212mm, in red morocco gilt portfolio and original suede-lined cloth clamshell box; both portfolio and box gilt-lettered with recipient’s initials on upper covers. Very fine condition.
There are no more fundamental tools of modern biotechnology than restriction enzymes, the molecular scissors used to slice DNA for analysis. Within a decade of their discovery, restriction enzymes launched a revolution in biomedical science that continues to the present day, including sequencing of the human genome, genetic testing, and the development of a new generation of gene-spliced medicines to treat diseases as diverse as arthritis, diabetes, and cancer.
Daniel Nathans was born in 1928 in Wilmington, Delaware, the youngest of nine children of Russian-Jewish immigrants. He won a medical school scholarship at Washington University in St. Louis and interned and did his residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. It wasn’t long, however, before he discovered his true calling in biochemical research, first at the Rockefeller Institute and then at the Johns Hopkins Medical School in the Department of Microbiology. Nathans arrived at Johns Hopkins in 1962 and remained there for the rest of his career. By the mid 1960s, Nathans’s research interests were focused on the genetic mechanisms of tumor viruses. In his own words, “It was quite clear that tumor viruses … were beautiful models of genetic mechanisms in mammalian cells." With this idea in mind, Nathans took a six-month sabbatical at the Weizmann Institute in Israel to study how infection by a small tumor virus, Simian Virus 40 (SV40), causes cells to switch from normal to cancerous growth.
While at the Weizmann Institute, Nathans received a letter from his Johns Hopkins colleague, Hamilton Smith (b.1931). Smith described his discovery of what is now called a type II restriction enzyme. He had isolated the enzyme from the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae and had shown that it cut DNA at specific sites. This discovery built on the work of the Swiss geneticist Werner Arber (b.1929), who had predicted the existence of restriction enzymes and provided a framework for understanding their biochemistry. Nathans quickly realized the practical implications of Smith’s discovery: if any DNA segment could be cut at specific sites, then one could use the resulting DNA fragments to both analyze and alter the structure of genes with far greater precision than had previously been possible.
In 1971, Nathans and his graduate student, Kathleen Danna, published the first step in this new paradigm for dissecting genes and genomes. By combining the techniques of restriction enzyme cleavage and gel electrophoresis, they became the first scientists to create a genome map based on DNA sequence. Thirty-five years later, Nobel laureate Richard Roberts reflected on the significance of this moment: “Looking back at the Danna and Nathans paper today, one is struck by the simplicity and elegance of the experiments. As with all great pioneering work, one can say, ‘But how obvious!’ … It was Nathans who made the key intuitive leap and then went on to demonstrate not only that the resulting fragments could be used to produce a physical map of SV40, but also that this physical map allowed the mapping of the origin of replication and the location of the SV40 genes. These pioneering studies set the stage for modern molecular biology. Suddenly, everyone wanted to map DNA and use any available restriction enzymes to examine their favorite genome” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 102, no. 17, April 2005). For this work, Hamilton Smith, Daniel Nathans and Werner Arber were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1978.
In subsequent years, Nathans served as a Senior Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a scientific advisor to President George H. W. Bush, and President of the Johns Hopkins University. In 1993, he received the nation’s highest scientific honor, the National Medal of Science, from President Clinton.
Also included in this lot are three papers by Daniel Nathans, being Nathans’s 1978 Nobel lecture, “Restriction Endonucleases, Simian Virus 40, and the New Genetics”; the paper “Use of Restriction Endonucleases in Analyzing the Genome of Simian Virus 40” reprinted from the Proceedings of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, vol. 33, no. 5, May 1974; and “Bidirectional Replication of Simian Virus 40 DNA” co-authored with Kathleen Danna and reprinted from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 69, no. 11, November 1972.
Prior to 1980 (as here), the Nobel medals were made of 23 karat gold, but since then the medals have been made of 18 karat green gold plated with 24 karat gold. The Nathans medal is a notably heavy example; apparently the thickness of the medal varied from year to year depending on the price of gold. The Nobel Prize is widely regarded as the most prestigious award in the fields of literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics.
Proceeds from the sale of this Nobel Prize medal are pledged to an endowment that supports the research of young biomedical scientists at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. The support is in the form of an annual award named in honor of Nathans’ friend and colleague, Hamilton Smith. Now in its fourth year, the Hamilton Smith Award for Innovative Research promotes research that is at the forefront of biomedicine. Nathans' medal, the symbol of his monumental work, is being sold by his family to catalyze the next scientific breakthroughs for the improvement of human health.