Dr. Har Gobind Khorana (or Hargobind Khorana) was born January 9, 1922, in Raipur, Punjab, which was then part of British India (now part of Pakistan). His family was Hindu, and his father was a local taxation official, or patwari, who homeschooled Har Gobind until he was ready for high school studies.
His family was poor, but literacy and education were important to them, which was unusual in their village. Khorana’s college studies were as follows:
During his research fellowship at Cambridge, Har Gobind Khorana was inspired by James Watson and Francis Crick’s study on the molecular structure of DNA. This really sparked his interest in genetic research, particularly the role of nucleotides.
His work helped establish which nucleotide combinations form specific amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, as well as how the nucleotide code is transmitted to start or stop the building of a protein. He was also the first scientist to synthesize oligonucleotides and was instrumental in determining the precise order of nucleotides into 64 groupings.
The significance of this work should not be underestimated, as we build on its foundation in modern genetic engineering. So in 1968, he was selected to share the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with two other scientists who also made groundbreaking discoveries regarding the role of nucleotides, Robert Holley and Marshall Nirenberg.
Har Gobind Khorana married Swiss-born Esther Sibler in 1952. They had three children together: Julia, Emily, and Dave. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1966.
He became the Alfred Sloan Professor of Biology and Chemistry at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 1970 and continued working there until his death. He was described as humble, brilliant, and inspiring.
On November 9, 2007, Har Gobind died at the age of 89 of natural causes. That same year, the University of Wisconson-Madison, the Government of India’s Department of Biotechnology, and the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum created the Khorana Scholars Program. The Khorana Program is dedicated to building community and partnerships among scientists, entrepreneurs, and industrialists of India and the United States.