Herman Branson

Last updated
Herman Russell Branson
Born(1914-08-14)August 14, 1914
DiedJune 7, 1995(1995-06-07) (aged 80)
Alma mater
Scientific career
Fields Physics, Biochemistry
Thesis 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.  (1939)
Doctoral advisor Boris Padolsky

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.


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 Podolsky, in 1939. His thesis was in three parts, the first involved the interaction of x-rays with Tubifex tubifex (or sludge worm), 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]

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]

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 1990 . [10]

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]

Related Research Articles

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Protein secondary structure General three-dimensional form of local segments of proteins

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Linus Pauling US scientist, Nobel laureate, and husband of Ava Helen Pauling

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Lawrence Bragg Australian-born British physicist and X-ray crystallographer

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William Astbury English biochemist

William Thomas Astbury FRS was an English physicist and molecular biologist who made pioneering X-ray diffraction studies of biological molecules. His work on keratin provided the foundation for Linus Pauling's discovery of the alpha helix. He also studied the structure for DNA in 1937 and made the first step in the elucidation of its structure.

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Pi helix

A pi helix is a type of secondary structure found in proteins. Discovered by crystallographer Barbara Low in 1952 and once thought to be rare, short π-helices are found in 15% of known protein structures and are believed to be an evolutionary adaptation derived by the insertion of a single amino acid into an α-helix. Because such insertions are highly destabilizing, the formation of π-helices would tend to be selected against unless it provided some functional advantage to the protein. π-helices therefore are typically found near functional sites of proteins.

3<sub>10</sub> helix Type of secondary structure

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Alpha sheet

Alpha sheet is an atypical secondary structure in proteins, first proposed by Linus Pauling and Robert Corey in 1951. The hydrogen bonding pattern in an alpha sheet is similar to that of a beta sheet, but the orientation of the carbonyl and amino groups in the peptide bond units is distinctive; in a single strand, all the carbonyl groups are oriented in the same direction on one side of the pleat, and all the amino groups are oriented in the same direction on the opposite side of the sheet. Thus the alpha sheet accumulates an inherent separation of electrostatic charge, with one edge of the sheet exposing negatively charged carbonyl groups and the opposite edge exposing positively charged amino groups. Unlike the alpha helix and beta sheet, the alpha sheet configuration does not require all component amino acid residues to lie within a single region of dihedral angles; instead, the alpha sheet contains residues of alternating dihedrals in the traditional right-handed (αR) and left-handed (αL) helical regions of Ramachandran space. Although the alpha sheet is only rarely observed in natural protein structures, it has been speculated to play a role in amyloid disease and it was found to be a stable form for amyloidogenic proteins in molecular dynamics simulations. Alpha sheets have also been observed in X-ray crystallography structures of designed peptides.

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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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David W. Green was a crystallographer at the Medical Research Council Unit for the Study of the Molecular Structure of Biological Systems, Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge.


  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.
  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)