100th Birthday: Rodney R. Porter

100th Birthday: Rodney R. Porter

Author: ChemViews Magazine (Photo: MRC National Institute for Medical Research, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Rodney Robert Porter was born on October 8, 1917, in Newton-le-Willows, UK. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from the University of Liverpool, UK, in 1939 and his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1948. His doctoral advisor was Frederick Sanger, the only person who has won two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry.

Porter joined the National Institute of Medical Research near London, UK, in 1949. In 1960, he became Professor of Immunology at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, London University. In 1967, he was appointed Whitley Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford, UK.

In 1959, Porter made an important discovery concerning the chemical structure of antibodies. Antibodies are large proteins which are important for the immune system, too large to study “in one piece” at the time. Antibodies recognize and bind specific molecules, the so-called antigens. Porter used the enzyme papain, which can break peptide bonds and split proteins into smaller parts, to break up the antibody rabbit γ-globulin. Papain split the protein into three parts of roughly equal molecular weight. Only two of the parts retained their ability to specifically bind to antigens.

Around the same time, Gerald M. Edelman, Rockefeller University, New York, NY, USA, split antibodies in a different way by breaking apart the disulfide bonds holding them together. This reaction resulted in four pieces per antibody, two larger “heavy chains” and two smaller “light chains”. The combination of this approach with Porter’s papain digestion led to the discovery of the Y-shaped structure of antibodies.

In 1972, Edelman and Porter jointly received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the chemical structure of antibodies”. Porter remained at Oxford University for the remainder of his career. He died on September 6, 1985, in an automobile accident shortly before his retirement.

Rodney Robert Porter is the answer to Guess the Chemist (70).


Selected Publications


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