Alton Meister

Cornell University

June 1, 1922 - April 6, 1995

Scientific Discipline: Biochemistry
Membership Type:
Member (elected 1969)

Biochemist Alton Meister’s research on amino acid metabolism and the synthesis of peptide bonds contributed to our understanding of the human immune system.  His early studies dealt primarily with the enzymatic decarboxylation of aspartic acid and glutamic acid.  He proposed a new mechanism for the biosynthesis of glutamine involving a specific carboxylic acid intermediate, and from it was able to determine the mechanism of action of the methionine sulfoxime enzyme involved in the process.  His other significant findings included the crystallization of L-amino acid oxidase, the development of a gas-liquid chromatography method for the determination of amino acids, and most importantly, his extensive research on the amino acid compound glutathione.  Meister discovered that glutathione (a compound containing the amino acids cysteine, glycine, and glutamic acid) prevented cells from oxidizing by bonding the cysteine’s thiol (S-H) group with the incoming oxygen atoms.  When he noticed that individuals infected with the AIDS virus had lower levels of glutathione, he incorporated the amino acid compound into a drug to treat the virus.  Although this wasn’t an absolute cure for the AIDS virus, it established a more complete understanding of the immune system that laid the foundation for the treatment of AIDS. 

Meister graduated from Harvard University with a B.S. degree in 1942 and received his medical degree from Cornell University Medical College three years later.  He served as chairman of the college’s biochemistry department for almost 35 years.  In 1947, he became a research investigator at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.  After eight years, he was appointed the head of the Clinical Biomedical Research Section of the Laboratory of Biochemistry for the institution’s National Cancer Institute.  Meister ended his research career in 1955 to become a professor and chairman of the biochemistry department at Tufts University School of Medicine.  In 1967, he accepted the same position at his alma mater.  He then became the biochemist-in-chief for the New York Hospital at the Cornell Medical Center in 1971, and he remained there until his retirement.  He was a member of the American Society of Biological Chemists (he served as president from 1977 to 1978), the American Chemical Society (ACS), the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, and several other scientific organizations.  For his innovative research in biochemistry, Meister was the recipient of the Paul Lewis Award in Enzyme Chemistry from ACS in 1954, the Founder’s Award from the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology in 1985, and (among many others) the Merit Award from the National Institutes of Health in 1987.

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