(1925 - 2012)
Leonard Solomon Lerman was a Jewish
American molecular biologist who discovered how to manipulate DNA
(deoxyribonucleic acid) and contributed to the quest to decipher the
basic building blocks of the human genetic code.
Lerman was born on June 27, 1925 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Meyer and Freamah Lerman. His parents emigrated from the Pale of
Settlement; his father was a buyer for a luxury department store and
his mother instilled a love of culture and learning in her sons.
Lerman received a scholarship at the age of 16 after
winning a science radio show contest, and attended the Carnegie Institute
of Technology, which is today Carnegie Mellon University. He started
college before graduating from high school and completed his B.S. in
a mere five semesters. During World
War II, he worked in an experimental weapons research lab, and subsequently
under Nobel laureate Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology. There, he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1950.
In 1952, Lerman married Claire Lindegren, but the two
divorced in 1973. He married Elizabeth Taylor, but divorced her later,
While he was working at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Lerman experimented with his theory that particular
chemicals attached themselves to DNA by inserting themselves between
molecules within the DNA strand. The insertions caused the DNA strands
to unwind and would sometimes lead to mutations in the blueprint of
our genetic code.
In 1959, he took his hypothesis on his sabbatical year
at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, and published his first
paper in 1961. While in England,
Lerman worked with Sydney Brenner and Francis Crick. In that lab, Crick
and James Watson made the landmark discovery of the double helix structure
Lerman’s work was critical to scientists’
establishment that groups of three nucleotides were the instrumental
components of our DNA. His research paved the way for how mutations
associated with human genetic diseases are diagnosed.
Lerman died from complications of a chronic neurological
disease on September 19, 2012 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts at age 87. He is survived by his partner, Lisa Steiner, three children
from his first marriage, and seven grandchildren.
Sources: Leslie Kaufman, "Leonard Lerman,
a Pioneer in DNA Study, Is Dead at 87," New
York Times, September 29, 2012. Photo ©New