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Leonard Lerman

(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, as well.

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 of DNA.

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 York Times