Not once in its 114-year history has the Nobel Prize been awarded to a black scientist. But in 1954, perhaps it should have. That year, the Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Linus Pauling the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances.” (Nine years later, Pauling won the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming only the second person to win in two categories; Marie Curie is the other.*)
By “structure of complex substances,” the academy largely meant the structure of proteins. Pauling had demonstrated that proteins—long chains made up of amino acids—didn’t flop around like loose strands of string but instead coiled into rigid spirals of predictable width and pitch. Pauling dubbed the spirals “alpha helices.” It was a scientific coup. Some of the world’s best scientists—including Nobel laureate Lawrence Bragg—had been chasing protein’s structure. But Pauling found it first.
Or so the story goes. There’s good reason to believe that Howard University physicist Herman Branson, not Pauling, performed the detailed calculations that revealed the alpha helix. In 1948, Branson spent a sabbatical year at Caltech, where Pauling invited him to work on the protein problem. Here’s how Branson described that collaboration to Ted and Ben Goertzel, authors of the Pauling biography A Life in Science and Politics:
I worked on this problem in the math library, reading all I could find on projective geometry, odd equations, and the like. At the end of two or three months, I had found two spiral structures which fit all the data. They were the alpha and gamma helices. I took my work to Pauling who told me that he thought they were too tight, that he thought a protein molecule should have a much larger radius so that water molecules could fit down inside and cause the protein to swell. I went back and worked unsuccessfully to find such a structure…
I wrote up what I had done and gave the paper to Pauling when I left in the summer of 1949. I heard nothing until I got this letter from Pauling dated October 6, 1950. I interpreted this letter as establishing that the alpha and gamma in my paper were correct and that the subsequent work done was cleaning up or verifying. The differences were nil.
No one disputes the fact that Branson was involved in the discovery of the alpha helix. He was one of three coauthors on the 1951 paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that unveiled the structure to the world. But an alternative to Branson’s narrative, far less generous to his role in the effort, gained a foothold in the scientific community. According to the Goertzels, that narrative is typified by a profile piece for the Pasadena Star-News, in which
Branson was mentioned only in a brief paragraph, which stated, “Dr. Herman Branson, Howard University professor, assessed Dr. Pauling’s work and found yet another helical spring-like arrangement of atoms which fitted the many conditions of proteins.
Pauling died in 1994, and Branson in 1995, so we’ll never know for certain what transpired in Pasadena all those years ago. But it’s revealing that, of the three authors of the PNAS paper, only Branson failed to garner a single nomination for the Nobel Prize. (Robert Corey, the paper’s other coauthor, was nominated once for the Medicine prize and three times for Chemistry.)
It’s tempting to attribute Branson’s snub to prejudices within the scientific community. But the truth, in this case, is likely more complicated than that. Unlike Pauling and Corey, Branson did very little follow up work on protein structure. He returned to Howard to take on other research problems, and he never wrote another paper with Pauling. Meanwhile, just a month after the alpha helix paper appeared, Pauling and Corey coauthored another paper reporting a second important protein structure, a pleated arrangement known as a beta sheet.
That’s not to say that Branson wasn’t prolific. His oeuvre includes theoretical treatments of polymerization, cell metabolism, arterial blood flow, and sickle cell anemia. He attacked those problems with a rigor that sometimes left even the brightest minds in the dust. Here’s renowned surgeon Charles Drew, responding to a preprint of a Branson paper on blood circulation:
I need a dictionary, a calculus book, a mathematics for elementary students, and a physics for beginners to get any idea of what you’re talking about, but it looks good.
Laureate or not, let it never be said that Branson didn’t win the respect of science’s titans.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that there have been only two repeat winners of Nobel prizes.
(Featured image courtesy of Berlin-George)
3 thoughts on “The Nobel laureate who wasn’t”
John Bardeen won the Nobel Prize twice. #justsayin
Thanks — good catch!