Robert William Holley

Holley, Robert William (1922-1993) was an American biochemist. He shared the 1968 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with American biochemist Marshall Warren Nirenberg and Indian-born American chemist Har Gobind Khorana. The prize was awarded for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis.

Robert William Holley was born on Jan. 28, 1922, in Urbana, Illinois. He received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1942. Holley married Ann Lenore Dworkin in 1945. They had one son. In 1947, Holley earned a doctorate in organic chemistry from Cornell University.


In 1948, Holley became assistant professor at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, a branch of Cornell University, in Geneva, New York. In 1964, he became a full professor at Cornell During a sabbatical year of research at the California Institute of Technology from 1955 to 1956, Holley undertook experimental work on the chemistry of the nucleic acids. His later research was an outgrowth of this earlier experimental work.

Holley's research involved a type of nucleic acid called ribonucleic acid (RNA), a complex molecule that helps produce proteins. Proteins are made up of chains of smaller molecules called amino acids. The body uses protein for the growth, maintenance, and repair of living tissues. By 1960, Holley and other researchers had found that a type of RNA called transfer RNA (tRNA) played a role in the building up of proteins. In 1965, Holley announced that he had isolated a particular RNA called alanine transfer RNA and determined its structure. It was the first nucleic acid to have its structure identified.

From 1966 to 1993, Holley was a staff member of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He also was a professor at the University of California at San Diego from 1969 to 1993. Holley died of lung cancer on Feb. 11, 1993, in Los Gatos, California.