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Boris Magasanik

  • Born: December 19, 1919, Kharkoff, Russia
  • Died: December 25, 2013, Cambridge, Massachusetts

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0186
Interview Date: 1993–1995
Interviewer: Sondra Schlesinger
No. of pages: 38

  Abstract of Interview

Boris Magasanik begins the interview with a description of his childhood years in Vienna, Austria. Shortly after graduating from the Gymnasium in 1937, Magasanik immigrated to the United States to live with his sister in New York City. It was still possible for Jewish families to leave Austria, and both Magasanik and his parents left the country. He enrolled in City College of New York, where he earned a B.S. in biochemistry in 1941. Hearing of its good reputation for organic chemistry, Magasanik decided to attend graduate school at Pennsylvania State University. While at Penn State, Magasanik was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in the Second General Hospital. His unit was transferred to Oxford, England, where he remained until the spring of 1944. After his release from military service in 1945, Magasanik went back to New York and continued his graduate education at Columbia University, researching inositols and RNA with Erwin Chargaff. After his postdoctoral work, Magasanik went to Harvard University as the Ernst Fellow in 1949. After joining the faculty at Harvard, Magasanik and his students researched histidine and purine biosynthesis and inositol degradation. When he joined the faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1960, Magasanik continued his work on inositol degradation, studying enzyme pathways. Later, Magasanik researched histidine degradation in Salmonella and Klebsiella. In 1967, Magasanik became head of the Department of Biology at MIT, serving in that capacity for ten years. During his years as chairman, Magasanik helped found the Center for Cancer Research. After his chairmanship, he remained active in the department, helping to establish the Whitehead Institute. Magasanik concludes the interview with a discussion of MIT's teaching environment, financial support for research projects, and continuing as an educator after retirement.


1941 B.S., Biochemistry, City College of New York
1948 Ph.D., Biochemistry, Columbia University

  Professional Experience

Columbia University

1948 - 1949 Research Assistant, Department of Biochemistry

Harvard University

1949 - 1951 Ernst Fellow, Bacteriology and Immunology

Harvard University

1951 - 1953 Associate

Harvard University

1951 - 1956 Markle Scholar

Harvard University

1953 - 1955 Assistant Professor

Harvard University

1955 - 1959 Associate Professor

Pasteur Institute, Paris

1959 - 1959 Guggenheim Fellow

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1960 - 1977 Professor, Department of Microbiology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1967 - 1977 Head, Department of Microbiology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1977 - Present Jacques Monod Professor of Microbiology


1993 Waksman Award, National Academy of Science

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Attending grade school and Gymnasium in Austria. Leaving Austria for the United States. Attending City College of New York. Decision to attend Penn State. Getting drafted into U.S. Army. Serving in England and France.

Graduate Studies 5

Returning to New York. Attending Columbia University. Hans Thatcher Clarke and Erwin Chargaff. Inositol research. RNA research. Becoming the Ernst Fellow at Harvard University. J. Howard Mueller. Markle Scholarship.

Career Beginnings 13

First graduate students. Inositol degradation research. Researching enzymatic pathways in inositol degradation. Histidine and purine biosynthesis. Meeting Jacques Monod. Joining MIT. Environment at MIT.

Career at MIT 21

Histidine degradation in Salmonella and Klebsiella. E. coli. Salvador Luria. Becoming head of Department of Biology. Establishing the Center for Cancer Research. Whitehead Institute.

Conclusion 27

Teaching environment at MIT. Funding research. Continuing as an educator after retirement.

Notes 32

Index 33

  About the Interviewer

Sondra Schlesinger

Sondra Schlesinger is professor of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine. She received her Ph.D. in biological chemistry from the University of Michigan and spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow with Professor Boris Magasanik at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked on enzyme induction and regulation in bacteria. She joined the faculty at Washington University in 1964, where initially she continued her research in the field of microbial genetics and physiology. In the early 1970s, she began her research work on the structure and replication of animal RNA viruses, which continues to this day. Dr. Schlesinger has over one hundred publications spanning these areas of microbiology. She was president of the American Society for Virology in 1992–1993, at which time she began her present interest and work in the history of virology.

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