Paul Berg at his home soon after learning he received the Nobel Prize.(Credit: Paul Sakuma/AP)
Dr. Paul Berg passed away on February 15, 2023, at the age of 96. He earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980 “for his fundamental studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids, with particular regard to recombinant-DNA.” His work led to innovative treatments for patients such a synthetic human insulin which keeps millions of people with diabetes alive. He also organized the now famous Asilomar conference at which researchers agreed to federal oversight for genetic engineering research.
Dr. Berg was a founding member of the FNIH Board, and served as its chair in 1996 and 1997. He opened the very first Board meeting, which took place in the Chapel Conference Room of the Mary Lasker Center on September 24, 1996, leading a discussion on the “areas that the Foundation would list as their major projects and to discuss how they would go about raising funds to accomplish these goals.”
In May 2005, Dr. Sanders proposed that Dr. Berg be elected the FNIH’s first Emeritus Director, which the Board unanimously approved. Dr. Berg held this appointment for the remainder of his life (see the Board resolution below).
Dr. Berg was Cahill Professor, Emeritus in Biochemistry and Director Emeritus of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. He served as Chair of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) Public Policy Committee. Under his guidance, the ASCB helped lead a coalition of scientific and patient advocacy groups who support federally funded stem cell research. He also served as Co-Chairman of the National Academy of Science Commission on Life Sciences.
His honors included the Eli Lilly Award in Biochemistry (1959), the California Scientist of the Year (1963), and the Henry J. Kaiser Award for Excellence in Teaching (1969, 1972). In 1980, he received the Gairdner Foundation Award, the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award, and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids, particularly recombinant DNA. Berg was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1966), The French Academy of Sciences (1981), The Royal Society, London (1992), and was awarded the National Medal of Science (1983).
Dr. Berg’s research used biochemical and molecular genetic approaches for the analysis of gene expression and recombination. Throughout his life, he continued to be actively involved in the public policy debates in Congress and elsewhere concerning embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.
Dr. Paul Berg leaves an incredible legacy in pursuit of new knowledge that leads to breakthroughs for patients as well as the responsible stewardship of controversial scientific research.