Image of a cell

Severo Ochoa

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For important contributions to biochemistry and molecular biology, discoveries that contributed greatly to our understanding of the mechanisms for energy generation within a cell, the mechanism whereby proteins are synthesized within a cell and the elucidation of the genetic code.

Severo Ochoa won the Nobel Prize in 1959 for discovering an enzyme that can synthesize RNA, an essential component for protein production in cells. Ochoa’s ground-breaking discovery opened new doors into understanding hereditary genes.

Ochoa, born in Spain, began medical school at the University of Madrid at the young age of 17. He received a medical degree from the university in 1929 but was not interested in practicing medicine. Research was his passion.

Ochoa held researching stints in Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom before moving to the United States in the 1940s. He became a U.S. citizen in 1956. In 1959 he shared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine with Arthur Kornberg, who had done similar research in DNA.

RNA and DNA are the substances that bear an organism’s genetic code, and the pioneering work by the scientists greatly expanded the understanding of how those substances are formed.

In the U.S. Severo taught and researched at Washington University in St. Louis and at New York University’s School of Medicine, where he became head of the biochemistry department in 1954.

By Robert Warren