Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Emil L. Smith

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Emil L. Smith

Article excerpt

EMIL SMITH was among the pioneers in the invention of meth- ods for purification, characterization, and sequencing of pro- teins. He was the first to show that in green plants chlorophyll is protein-bound, and he was the first to demonstrate the widespread requirement for specific metal ions to enable the catalytic activity of diverse peptidases.

Early Life and Education

Emil L. Smith was born on 5 July 1911 in New York City. His parents were immigrants, his father from Russian Ukraine and his mother from Belorussia. They met in New York and were married in 1906. Emil's father was a skilled tailor and initially worked for Saks Fifth Avenue. He then opened his own small shop, and the income provided a decent living for the family. His mother was a homemaker and helped in the store.

The Smiths had two children: Bernard, born in 1907, and Emil. The parents, largely self-educated, valued knowledge and culture, and their sons went on to distinguished careers, Bernard as a highly re- garded book editor, film producer, and writer, and Emil as a scientist and educator.

Emil progressed rapidly through the New York public schools, skip- ping several grades. At age sixteen he enrolled in the Columbia Univer- sity School of General Studies. He described himself as an average stu- dent in school, but evidence of his wide-ranging talents emerged early. At age nine, influenced by a neighbor who was a pioneering radio engi- neer, Smith began to build small inexpensive receiving sets, which he and a friend sold for several years to relatives and others. Midway through high school, Emil started playing the saxophone, and after two years of lessons from a very good, rigorous teacher, he progressed to working as a professional jazz musician largely through the well-known Moss-Hallett agency. His earnings helped to pay his college tuition at Columbia. During his last club performance, on 31 December 1931, he was part of Eddie Edward's augmented Dixieland Band, playing in New York at the famous Webster Hall, which was described as the "Jewel of the Village" by the playwright Eugene O'Neill. The following day, at a New Year's party, Emil met his future wife, Esther Press.

When he enrolled as a pre-med student at Columbia, Emil had an ill-defined interest in science. Then, in his sophomore year, he fell under the spell of two gifted teachers: James Howard McGregor and John Maurice Nelson. McGregor, a professor of zoology and a dynamic and persuasive teacher, made everything in biology very exciting. His course emphasized evolution and genetics. Nelson, who taught the organic chemistry course, was unusual among organic chemists at the time because of his interest in the chemistry of enzymes. (One of Nelson's Ph.D. students, John Northrop, received the 1946 Nobel Prize in Chem- istry for establishing that enzymes are proteins.) These two teachers set Emil on his lifetime course of studying proteins, a domain where the strands of biology and organic chemistry are tightly interwoven.

After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1931, Emil began his gradu- ate studies in Columbia University's zoology department. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression, so the offer of a teaching as- sistantship was an important factor in his choice. For the next three years, he taught for twelve hours a week in parallel with his research.

In his first year as a graduate student, Emil took Selig Hecht's sen- sory physiology course and was captivated both by the instructor and the coursework. George Wald, who completed his Ph.D. studies with Hecht in 1932, later wrote, "In Hecht, great scientific capacities com- bined with superb gifts as a teacher, writer, and lecturer" (Wald 1991).

Emil unhesitatingly chose Hecht as his mentor. Hecht was a re- search pioneer in the discipline of general physiology, as well as in the physiology of vision. He ensured from the start that Emil was exposed to rigorous research training in the biophysics of vision. …

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