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Election Year: 1979
Scientific Discipline: Biochemistry
Membership Type: Member
Through experiments that provided an early clue to understanding cell-ligand recognition, biochemist G. Gilbert Ashwell advanced the field that would become known as glycobiology—the study of saccharides, or sugars, which are a key component of all life forms. Ashwell’s research ranged from carbohydrate chemistry to metabolism and enzymology. His milestone work included, with Anatol Morell, identification of probably the first known receptor and, with Toshisuke Kawasaki, discovery of an avian hepatic binding protein—both findings becoming vital to subsequent biological and medical advances.
Ashwell earned a B.S. in chemistry in 1938 and an M.S. in 1941 from the University of Illinois. He worked for the Merck chemical company until 1944, then took an M.D. degree at Columbia University in 1948 but never practiced medicine, instead beginning a lifelong career in research, first in the Columbia laboratory of Zacharias Dische. Joining the Public Health Service in 1950, he began work at the NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, where he spent the rest of his professional life. He became chief of the Institute’s Laboratory of Biochemistry and Metabolism in 1967, a position he held until being named the NIH’s first (and thus far only) Institute Scholar in 1984.