Prof. Sumner Honored 56 Years After His Death

October 3, 2011 12:00 am0 comments
Rebekah Foster

On Sept. 22, Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences dedicated a plaque in the lobby of Savage Hall in honor of Prof. James B. Sumner, biochemistry, who won a Nobel Prize in 1946 for his discovery that enzymes can be crystallized. 

Prof. Patrick Stover, director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences, described Sumner’s groundbreaking research, his personality and his impact on the Cornell community.  

“Sumner brought great distinction to Cornell not only through the Nobel Prize he received, but he also helped create what we know as the ‘Cornell Culture’ where undergraduate and graduate students are taught by world-class, leading research scientists,” Stover stated in an email after the ceremony. 

The plaque was dedicated after Sumner received a posthumous award from the American Chemical Society in honor of his historic research. Sumner died in 1955. 

At the ceremony, James C. White ’39, Ph.D. ’44, remembered Sumner as a committed and excellent teacher. White worked as a graduate student in Sumner’s lab and recounted stories about how Sumner would walk through Stocking Hall with test tubes tucked under the stump of his partially-amputated arm, according to a University press release. 

When Sumner was 17, he was accidentally shot in his dominant left hand while hunting and needed his arm to be amputated below the elbow, according to the University. He was advised by a mentor at Harvard to take up law due to his amputation. Sumner ignored the adviced and earned a bachelors degree in 1910 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard in 1914.

In 1915, he joined Cornell Medical School in Ithaca — when the medical school still had an Ithaca campus —  as an assistant professor of biochemistry, Stover said. When the Medical School relocated exclusively to New York City in 1938, Sumner transferred to the Zoology Department in the College of Arts and Sciences and then moved again to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as a professor in the Biochemistry Department, according to Stover. 

Prof Leonard Maynard, animal husbandry, wrote a biography about Sumner, titled, James Batcheller Sumner 1887 – 1995. Maynard wrote that Sumner pursued difficult challenges that could make major impacts on his field because his time for research was limited by his heavy teaching load.

Isolating enzymes had frustrated many scientists because enzymes were exceedingly unstable and were available in low concentrations in raw materials, according to Maynard’s book. In 1926, Sumner succeeded in isolating enzymes, which brought him a full professorship in 1929, Maynard wrote. 

Fewer than 20 years later, Sumner received the Nobel Prize for his discovery that enzymes can be crystallized. Sumner was the first to purify an enzyme, discover that enzymes are proteins and crystallize an enzyme, according to Stover.

“These are all major accomplishments that transformed the fields of biochemistry, chemistry and enzymology. Few scientists could ever claim such accomplishments,” Stover said.