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Oswald Avery Jr.
Oswald T. Avery portrait 1937.jpg
Oswald Avery Jr. in 1937
Osward Theodore Avery Jr.

October 21, 1877
Died February 20, 1955(1955-02-20) (aged 77)
Nationality American
Known for
Awards ForMemRS
Copley Medal (1945)
Scientific career
Fields Molecular biology
Institutions Rockefeller University Hospital

Oswald Theodore Avery Jr. FRS (October 21, 1877 – February 20, 1955) was a Canadian-born American physician and medical researcher. Most of his career was spent at the Rockefeller University Hospital in New York City.

Avery was one of the first molecular biologists and one of the first people to study immunochemistry.

He is best known for the experiment (published in 1944 with his co-workers Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty) which proved that DNA is the material from which genes are made.

The Nobel laureate Arne Tiselius said that Avery was the most deserving scientist to not receive the Nobel Prize for his work, even though he was nominated for the award several times during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.


Oswald Avery was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His father was a Baptist minister. In 1887, his father was asked to move to New York City to lead a church. Avery received his A.B. degree in 1900 from Colgate University. He earned an M.D. degree from the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1904. He practiced medicine in New York City until 1907 when he became a researcher at Hoagland Laboratory in Brooklyn, New York. As an adult, Avery had hyperthyroidism (Graves' disease) and he had thyroid surgery in 1934. He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1936.

Breakthrough discovery

For many years, genetic information was thought to be in cell protein. Continuing the research done by Frederick Griffith in 1927, Avery worked with MacLeod and McCarty on the mystery of inheritance. He got emeritus status from the Rockefeller Institute in 1943, but continued working for five years, though by that time he was in his late sixties.

In this early experiment dead Streptococcus pneumoniae of the virulent strain type III-S, was injected together with living but non-virulent type II-R pneumococci. This resulted in a deadly infection of type III-S pneumococci.

Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase took Avery's research further in 1952 with the Hershey–Chase experiment. These experiments paved the way for Watson and Crick's discovery of the helical structure of DNA, and thus the birth of modern genetics and molecular biology. Of this event, Avery wrote in a letter to his youngest brother Roy, a bacteriologist at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine: "It's lots of fun to blow bubbles but it's wiser to prick them yourself before someone else tries to".

Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg stated that Avery and his laboratory provided "the historical platform of modern DNA research" and "betokened the molecular revolution in genetics and biomedical science generally".

The collected papers of Avery are stored in two locations: the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and the Rockefeller Archive. Many of his papers, poems, and hand written lab-notes are available at the National Library of Medicine in the Oswald T. Avery Collection, the first of their Profiles in Science series.

  • René Dubos, The Professor, the Institute, and DNA: Oswald T. Avery, his life and scientific achievements, 1976, Paul & Company, ISBN: 0-87470-022-1

See also

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