Herman Branson

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Herman Russell Branson (August 14, 1914 – June 7, 1995) was an American physicist, chemist, best known for his research on the alpha helix protein structure, and was also the president of two colleges.

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Physicist scientist who does research in physics

A physicist is a scientist who specializes in the field of physics, which encompasses the interactions of matter and energy at all length and time scales in the physical universe. Physicists generally are interested in the root or ultimate causes of phenomena, and usually frame their understanding in mathematical terms. Physicists work across a wide range of research fields, spanning all length scales: from sub-atomic and particle physics, through biological physics, to cosmological length scales encompassing the universe as a whole. The field generally includes two types of physicists: experimental physicists who specialize in the observation of physical phenomena and the analysis of experiments, and theoretical physicists who specialize in mathematical modeling of physical systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. Physicists can apply their knowledge towards solving practical problems or to developing new technologies.

Chemist scientist trained in the study of chemistry

A chemist is a scientist trained in the study of chemistry. Chemists study the composition of matter and its properties. Chemists carefully describe the properties they study in terms of quantities, with detail on the level of molecules and their component atoms. Chemists carefully measure substance proportions, reaction rates, and other chemical properties. The word 'chemist' is also used to address Pharmacists in Commonwealth English.


Early life

Branson received his B.S. from Virginia State College in 1936, and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cincinnati, under the direction of Boris Padolsky, in 1939. His thesis was in three parts, the first involved the interaction of x-rays with Tubifex Tubifex, the second involving the design and construction of an x-ray intensity measuring device, and the third section on the quantization of mass using the Dirac Equation. [1] [2] After a stint at Dillard University, he joined Howard University in 1941 as an assistant professor of physics and chemistry. As a scientist, Branson made significant contributions to how proteins work, and how they contribute to diseases such as sickle cell anemia. [3] [4] He remained at Howard for 27 years, achieving increasingly important positions, eventually becoming head of the physics department, director of a program in experimental science and mathematics, and working on the Office of Naval Research and Atomic Energy Commission Projects in Physics at Howard University. One of his students would include Marie Maynard Daly who was the first woman of color in the United States to earn her doctorate in Chemistry. [5]

University of Cincinnati public research university in Cincinnati, Ohio

The University of Cincinnati is a public research university in Cincinnati Ohio. Founded in 1819 as Cincinnati College, it is the oldest institution of higher education in Cincinnati and has an annual enrollment of over 44,000 students, making it the second largest university in Ohio. It is part of the University System of Ohio.

Dillard University private college in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Dillard University is a private, historically black, liberal arts college in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. Founded in 1930 and incorporating earlier institutions that were founded as early as 1869 after the American Civil War, it is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church.

Howard University university in Washington D.C.

Howard University is a private, federally chartered historically black university (HBCU) in Washington, D.C. It is categorized by the Carnegie Foundation as a research university with higher research activity and is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Work on protein structure

In 1948, Branson took a leave and spent time at the California Institute of Technology, in the laboratory of the chemist Linus Pauling. There he was assigned work on the structure of proteins, specifically to use his mathematical abilities to determine possible helical structures that would fit both the available X-ray crystallography data and a set of chemical restrictions outlined by Pauling. [6] After some months of work, Branson handed in a report narrowing the possible structures to two helices: a tighter coil Pauling termed "alpha," and a looser helix called "gamma." Branson then returned to Howard to work on other projects. Some months later he received a letter from Pauling along with a draft manuscript of a paper detailing the two helixes, with Branson listed as third author (after Pauling and his assistant Robert Corey, the laboratory's expert in transforming X-ray data into precise models). Pauling asked for suggestions. Branson replied in a letter that it was fine as written, approved submission to the Proceedings of the National Acaademy of Sciences, and asked for 25 preprints when published. [7] [8] [9]

California Institute of Technology private research university located in Pasadena, California

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a private doctorate-granting research university in Pasadena, California. Known for its strength in natural science and engineering, Caltech is often ranked as one of the world's top-ten universities.

Linus Pauling American scientist

Linus Carl Pauling was an American chemist, biochemist, peace activist, author, educator, and husband of American human rights activist Ava Helen Pauling. He published more than 1,200 papers and books, of which about 850 dealt with scientific topics. New Scientist called him one of the 20 greatest scientists of all time, and as of 2000, he was rated the 16th most important scientist in history.

Helix smooth space curve

A helix, plural helixes or helices, is a type of smooth space curve, i.e. a curve in three-dimensional space. It has the property that the tangent line at any point makes a constant angle with a fixed line called the axis. Examples of helices are coil springs and the handrails of spiral staircases. A "filled-in" helix – for example, a "spiral" (helical) ramp – is called a helicoid. Helices are important in biology, as the DNA molecule is formed as two intertwined helices, and many proteins have helical substructures, known as alpha helices. The word helix comes from the Greek word ἕλιξ, "twisted, curved".

Later career and controversy

Branson went on to a significant career, eventually serving as president of Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, from 1968–1970, and then president of Lincoln University until his retirement in 1985. He was active in increasing federal funding for higher education, and helped found the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education in 1969. [10]

Central State University Public historically black university in Wilberforce, OH, USA

Central State University (CSU) is a public, historically black university (HBCU) located in Wilberforce, Ohio, United States. It is a member-school of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) university in Pennsylvania

Lincoln University (LU) is public historically black university in Oxford, Pennsylvania. Founded as a private university in 1854, it has been a public institution since 1972 and was the United States' first degree-granting HBCU. Its main campus is located on 422 acres near the town of Oxford in southern Chester County, Pennsylvania. The university has a second location in University City, Philadelphia. Lincoln University provides undergraduate and graduate coursework to approximately 2,000 students. The University is a member-school of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

In 1984 Branson wrote Pauling biographers Victor and Mildred Goertzel implying that his contribution to the alpha helix had been greater than the final paper indicated. "I took my work to Pauling who told me that he thought they [the proposed alpha and gamma helixes] were too tight, that he thought that a protein molecule should have a much larger radius so that water molecules could fit down inside and cause the protein to swell," he wrote. "I went back and worked unsuccessfully to find such a structure." When he received Pauling's note with the draft manuscript, Branson wrote, "I interpreted this letter as establishing that the alpha and gamma in my paper were correct and that the subsequent work done was cleaning up or verifying. The differences were nil." He added in his letter to the Goertzels that he "resented" the later attention lavished on Pauling and Corey. [11] The conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media referred to the incident in an attack on Pauling in 1994. [12] The available records, historical context, knowledge of the personalities involved, and studies of Pauling's laboratory and methods at the time have led most historians to accord greater credit to Pauling and Corey. [13] [14]

Accuracy In Media (AIM) is an American non-profit news media watchdog founded in 1969 by economist Reed Irvine. AIM describes itself as "a non-profit, grassroots citizens watchdog of the news media that critiques botched and bungled news stories and sets the record straight on important issues that have received slanted coverage." It has a politically conservative stance.

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3<sub>10</sub> helix

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Harvey Akio Itano was an American biochemist best known for his work on the molecular basis of sickle cell anemia and other diseases. In collaboration with Linus Pauling, Itano used electrophoresis to demonstrate the difference between normal hemoglobin and sickle cell hemoglobin; their 1949 paper "Sickle Cell Anemia, a Molecular Disease" was a landmark in both molecular medicine and protein electrophoresis.

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Barbara Wharton Low was a biochemist, biophysicist, and a researcher involved in discovering the structure of penicillin and the characteristics of other antibiotics. Her early work at Oxford University with Dorothy Hodgkin used X-ray crystallography to confirm the molecular structure of penicillin, which at the time was the largest molecule whose structure has been determined using that method. Later graduate work saw her study with Linus Pauling and Edwin Cohn before becoming a professor in her own right. Low's laboratory would accomplish the discovery of the pi helix, investigate the structure of insulin, and conduct research into neurotoxins.


  1. Branson, Herman (1939). I. The effects of soft x-rays on Tubifex Tubifex, II. The construction and operation of an x-ray intensity measuring device, III. The quantization of mass. Proquest.com UMI Microfilm DP15661.
  2. Podolsky, Boris; Branson, Herman (1940-03-15). "On the Quantization of Mass". Physical Review. 57 (6): 494–500. Bibcode:1940PhRv...57..494P. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.57.494.
  3. "Dr. Herman Branson: A pioneer in protein structures". Helix. 2018-02-28. Retrieved 2018-08-31.
  4. Labat, Gladys P.; Shelton, Thomas G.; Stanley, Connie; Branson, Herman (Jan 1958). "Studies of Sickle Cell Anemia". Journal of the National Medical Association. 50 (1): 20–24. PMC   2641372 . PMID   13492021.
  5. "Marie Maynard Daly: Biochemist". webfiles.uci.edu. Retrieved 2016-03-31.
  6. "Narrative - 33. Herman Branson - Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins: A Documentary History". scarc.library.oregonstate.edu. Retrieved 2018-08-31.
  7. Pauling, Linus; Corey, Robert B.; Branson, H. R. (1951-04-01). "The structure of proteins: Two hydrogen-bonded helical configurations of the polypeptide chain". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 37 (4): 205–211. Bibcode:1951PNAS...37..205P. doi:10.1073/pnas.37.4.205. PMC   1063337 . PMID   14816373.
  8. "Letter from Herman Branson to Linus Pauling. October 10, 1950. - Correspondence - Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins: A Documentary History". scarc.library.oregonstate.edu. Retrieved 2018-08-31.
  9. Eisenberg, David (2003). "The discovery of the alpha-helix and beta-sheet, the principal structural features of proteins". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 100 (20): 11207–11210. Bibcode:2003PNAS..10011207E. doi:10.1073/pnas.2034522100. PMC   208735 . PMID   12966187.
  10. "Herman Branson, 80, a Scientist Who Headed Lincoln University," Obituary, New York Times, June 13, 1995
  11. Goertzel, Ted and Ben Goertzel. Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics New York: Basic Books (1995) pp. 95-98 Note: Ted and Ben are father and son. Ted in turn is son of Victor and Mildred and credits them as co-authors of the Pauling biography, in his Rutgers' vita.
  12. "Linus Pauling: Crank or Genius?" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-08-11.
  13. Judson, Horace Freeland. The Eighth Day of Creation: The Makers of the Revolution in Biology New York: Simon&Schuster (1979)
  14. Hager, Thomas. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling. New York: Simon&Schuster (1995)