Alex Rich on Building A Research Team at NIH
  Alex Rich     Biography    
Recorded: 20 Aug 2006

We…by mid -1954 my fellowship was ending. I was in the United States Public Health Service while I was at Caltech. And, they, …I was appointed to Head of Section on Physical Chemistry at NIH. And I discovered I had to hire people. I actually pulled together a good group. Jack Dunitz who was a colleague at Caltech, he thought, Sure he would come to NIH and join us, join me. And this was in the middle of the Korean war, people were very concerned about being drafted. Jim was worried. So I said, Jim, why don’t you simply come to NIH and join the Public Health Service? You won’t have to give up research. So he agreed. If he couldn’t, …if the alternative was going into the military or going to NIH, he would go to NIH. Matt Meselson also agreed to come. And, but as it turned out both Matt and Jim were deferred for different reasons. I think Matt may have had asthma as a child. But, anyhow, the net result was that in June of ’54, I arrived at NIH in this large Building 10 that had just been opened and set up a lab. I had already ordered x-ray diffraction equipment and material needed to run the lab. And then I continued working on this problem. Things changed rather dramatically in the fall of 1955 because Severo Ochoa came to NIH to give a lecture. Oh…Exuse me fall of 1954. Severo Ochoa came to give a lecture on an enzyme that he had, that Marion Grunberg-Manago had just purified in his laboratory. This was called polynucleotide phosphorilase. What it did is take ribonucleoside diphosphates, cleave off the terminal phosphate and polyermise the ribonucleotides to make RNA chains. Well I thought to myself this, this seems like a better bet for making an oriented fiber. And so I started drawing fibers. I learned how to make the enzyme and make polymers of different kind. I began to get better diffraction patterns, better orientation and suggestions that some might be helical.

Alexander Rich (b. 1924), biologist and biophysicist, is the William Thompson Sedgwick Professor of Biophysics and Biochemistry, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Biology. Rich first joined the MIT faculty in 1958. Subsequent to serving in the U.S. Navy from 1943-1946, Rich earned his undergraduate degree (A.B., magna cum laude, 1947) and medical degree (M.D., cum laude, 1949) from Harvard University. While doing his postdoctoral work at Caltech under Linus Pauling, Rich met Jim Watson and they began their collaboration on the structure of RNA. From 1969-1980 he was an investigator in NASA's Viking Mission to Mars, the project which designed experiments to determine if there is life on Mars.

Alex Rich's most well-known scientific discoveries are left-handed DNA, or Z-DNA, and the three-dimensional structure of transfer RNA. He has been elected to the the National Academy of Sciences (1970), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the French Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (the Vatican.) Among other awards and honorary degrees he has received are the Medal of Science granted by President Clinton in 1995, the Rosentiel Award in Basic Biomedical Research, and the Presidential Award of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Since the 1980s Alex Rich has been actively involved in number of companies in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. He co-founded the pharmaceutical company Alkermes Inc. in 1987 and currently serves as a director. He is also Co-Chairman of the Board of Directors of Repligen Corporation, Inc., a biopharmaceutical company, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Roseta Genomics, and a member of the Board of Directors for Profectus Biosciences, Inc.