Emil L. Smith

University of California, Los Angeles

July 5, 1911 - May 31, 2009

Scientific Discipline: Biochemistry
Membership Type:
Emeritus (elected 1962)

Emil Smith’s research on the amino acid sequence of proteins laid the groundwork for, and in many cases defined, what is currently understood about enzyme structure, function, and evolution.

Smith earned his bachelor’s degree in 1931 and his PhD in biophysics in 1936, both from Columbia University. His doctoral work focused on the protein-chlorophyll compounds that underlie photosynthesis. During a fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute, Smith explored how the amino acid sequence determines a protein’s three-dimensional structure and how this structure affects the protein’s function. In the later years, Smith sequenced and characterized proteins that are ubiquitous between species and provided some of the first evidence of convergent evolution in proteins that are found in plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals.

Smith spent 17 years on the faculty of the University of Utah School of Medicine before leaving to chair the Department of Biological Chemistry in the newly formed School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He remained at UCLA until his retirement.

In addition to his body of published research, Smith co-authored the first and subsequent editions of the textbook Principles of Biochemistry. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. As part of his work with the NAS, Smith led diplomacy efforts that facilitated the first formal agreements for scientific exchange between researchers in the United States and China.

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