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February 25: Phoebus Levene and the Elements of DNA

February 25, 2015

16345_18Phoebus Levene (Fishel Aaronovich Levin), a biochemist who pioneered the study of nucleic acids, the building blocks of life, and distinguished DNA from RNA, was born in Lithuania on this date in 1869. He studied medicine and chemistry in St. Petersburg and became an MD in 1891, two years before pogroms in the Russian Empire drove him to New York, where he practiced as a doctor on the Lower East Side (and came down with tuberculosis). Levene was appointed as head of the biochemical laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in 1905 and remained there for the duration of his career. In the course of his research, he identified the components of DNA and charted (incorrectly) how they were linked together into units that he called nucleotides. Levene published some 700 scientific papers and articles on organic compounds of all kinds. He died in 1940; shortly after, the significance of DNA in the shaping of life in all its diversity and interrelatedness would become clear.

“Levene was a cultured man, an art lover and a collector. The walls of his house were lined with either prints and paintings or overflowing bookshelves. Levene was extremely well-read and was fluent in Russian, English, French and German. He also spoke passable Spanish and Italian. His experience, knowledge and his generosity made him a favorite with colleagues and friends. He was also said to be a great teacher, enthusiastic and supportive.” —DNA from the Beginning