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Gerald Maurice Edelman

        Science | American Biologists

Edelman, Gerald Maurice (1929-) is an American physiologist. He shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with British physiologist Rodney Robert Porter for their discovery of the basic chemical structure of antibodies. Antibodies play a vital part in the body's defense against disease.

Edelman's early education was in the New York public schools. After graduating high school, he attended Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. He received his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1950. He entered the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and received his medical degree in 1954. In 1955, he joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps. He practiced general medicine at a hospital in Paris. Two years later, he was discharged from the Army, and returned to New York City to study at Rockefeller University. He did his graduate work under the guidance of Henry Kunkel, who was investigating the flexibility of antibodies.

Edelman received his doctorate in 1960. He remained at Rockefeller University, serving as assistant dean of graduate studies until 1966, then was appointed professor of biochemistry and Vincent Astor Distinguished Professor in 1974. He left in 1992 to work at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

In order to determine the structure of human immunoglobulin, Edelman had to break the molecule, which was very large, into smaller portions. He did this by reducing and splitting some of the bonds. He proposed that the molecule contained more than one polypeptide chain and that two kinds of chains existed, heavy and light. These studies helped Porter propose a structure for the antibody immunoglobulin G. Edelman analyzed the structure of an antibody and showed how it binds to a pathogen (disease-causing microorganism). From an understanding of the structure, it was possible to identify different types of antibodies and how they function. Edelman's work enabled major advances to be made in immunological research, which produced important practical developments in diagnosis and treatment. For this work, Edelman and Porter received the 1972 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.