Professor Sidney Altman

Sidney Altman

Because of the war I’ve missed the news about the death of Sidney Altman on April 5, 2022. Altman is outstanding researcher, who first discovered the catalytical properties of RNA. He shared the Nobel prize in Chemisry with Thomas Cech in 1989. Their research results seem even more important nowadays when RNA-targeted drugs becomes reality.


Sidney Altman was born in Canada in 1939 and worked mostly in the USA however he’s also related to Ukraine. His farther Viktor Altman, born in Ukraine, had been a worker on a collective farm in the Soviet Union (town Chornyi Ostriv, now in the Khmelnitsky region) and immigrated to Canada in 1934.


It is amazing how many researchers, including Nobel prize winners, have roots or origins from Ukraine, especially in Chemistry and Life Science.


Mostly they are descendants of Ukrainian Jews who left their hometowns and villages in the first part of 20th century.


Probably one of the most well-known scientist directly related to Ukraine is Roald Hoffmann. He is Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (in 1981, shared with Kenichi Fukui) who created semiempirical and nonempirical computational tools for chemistry including well-known Woodward–Hoffmann rules. Hoffmann was born in 1937 in Zolochiv (that time it was a part of Poland, nowdays is located in Lviv region). Hoffmann has a dramatical personal story of survive during Holocaust due to help of Ukrainian teacher Mykola Dyuk who has hidden him and his family in the attic of the local schoolhouse. After the war the survived family members immigrated to the USA.


After ruzzian invasion Roald Hoffmann was one of the first researchers who made a statement to support Ukraine. He has also initiated Nobel Laureate Support for Ukraine and drafted a letter which already has >200 signatures of various Nobel Prize winners.


Another famous researcher is Selman Waksman (1888-1973, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1952), a professor of biochemistry and microbiology at Rutgers University, who discovered number of antibioitics including streptomycin. Waksman was born in Ukrainian old town Nova Pryluka (nowdays – Vinnytsia Region), he studied in Odessa Gymnasium and emigrated to the USA in 1911.


There are also number of other scientists which Ukrainian roots are less known. Some examples are below:


Herbert Brown (1912-2004)- recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He has obtained for the first time Sodium Borohydride – one of the most popular reagent in organic synthesis and investigated lots of organoboranes. Herbert Brown was born in London (named as Herbert Brovarnik), but his parents were Ukrainian Jewish immigrants from Zhytomyr .


Cesar Milstein (1927-2002) has shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1984 with Niels Kaj Jerne and Georges J. F. Köhler. His main contribution is developing the hybridoma technique – the approach that allowed to start a massive research in the field of monoclonal antibodies - one of the most important class of medicines nowadays. Milstein was born in Argentina where his parents immigrated from the territory of modern Ukraine (village Shishkivtsi, Khmelnitsky region).


Another Nobel prize winner Ralph Steinman (1943-2011) has also roots from Khmelnitsky region. His parents were from the village which is called now Staryi Ostropil and emigrated to Canada. He got the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine (with Bruce Beutler and Jules A. Hoffmann) "for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity."


Irwin Rose (1926-2015) – one of the pioneers in discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko in 2004. Several drug candidates which utilize this unique machinery are under clinical trials now and hopefully will be approved soon. Rose’s farther came to New York from Odessa.


H. Robert Horvitz (born 1947) was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with Sydney Brenner and John E. Sulston. Horwitz is well known for the discovering the process of a genetic program controlling cell death, or apoptosis, which is intensively investigated for the developments of new drugs. His grandmother emigrated to the USA from Novhorod Siverskyi (now Chernigiv region) in the beginning of XX century. During ruzzian invasion on February 2022 Novhorod Siverskyi was among first captured Ukrainian towns. It was liberated later in Spring.


Eric Kandel (born 1929) – Austrian-American neuroscientist, a pioneer in understanding on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. He shared 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard. Eric Kandel was born in Vienna, where his parents moved from the territory of Ukraine at the beginning of World War I (that time that was a part of Austria-Hungary). His mother was born in 1897 in Kolomyia (Ivano-Frankivsk region) while his father, born in Olesko (not far from Lviv). The family lived in Vienna by 1938 and had to emigrate to New York when Austria was occupied by Nazi.


Walter Kohn (1923-2016) is another scientist who was born in Vienna. He was awarded Chemistry Nobel Prize in 1998 together with John Pople for his outstanding and leading role in the development of density functional theory. His mother was originally from town Brody (Lviv region). However, the family story is more tragic than in the case of Eric Kandel. In 1938 he and his sister were evacuated from Vienna to England and then to Canada while the parents remained in Austria. Later they were killed in Auschwitz.


And this is really just a part of scientists and Nobel Prize winners with Ukrainian roots, I didn’t even touch the Nobel prize winners in Physics, Economics or Literature.


Thus while Ukraine does not have any own Nobel prize laureate yet the impact of our land in Nobel Prize winner “population” is significant


I’m sure we’ll see more and more Nobel Prize winners with Ukrainian roots in the future!..

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