Avery, Oswald Theodore

Avery, Oswald Theodore: (1877-1955) Distinguished Canadian-American bacteriologist and research physician and one of the founders of immunochemistry. He is best known, however, as a discoverer that deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) serves as genetic material. The work of Avery and his laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute, Dr. Joshua Lederberg has observed, was "the historical platform of modern DNA research" and "betokened the molecular revolution in genetics and biomedical science generally."

Oswald Avery was born in Halifax, NovaScotia, the child of British emigrants. When his father, a Baptist minister, was invited to become the pastor of a New York City church in 1887, the family moved to the Lower East Side. Avery attended both Colgate Academy and Colgate University, where, as a talented cornetist, he became leader of the college band. He received his A.B. in 1900. Upon graduating from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1904, Avery entered general practice. In 1907, however, frustrated by medicine's inability to help some patients, he moved to laboratory work at the Hoagland Laboratory (Brooklyn), the first privately endowed bacteriological research institute in the country. Here Avery established what Rene J. Dubos has called the pattern of his career - the "systematic effort to understand the biological activities of pathogenic bacteria through a knowledge of their chemical composition."

Avery came to the attention of Rufus Cole, the director of the Hospital of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, through his paper on secondary infections in pulmonary tuberculosis. Founded in 1910, the Hospital aimed to further medical research by enabling researchers to pursue laboratory and clinical investigations of the diseases treated in the hospital's wards. One of Cole's goals was to develop a therapeutic serum--like that which had been developed for diphtheria--for pneumonia, and to this end he asked Avery to join the Hospital's pneumonia research program. Avery moved to the Rockefeller Institute in 1913, where he focused most of his research for the next 35 years on a single species of pneumococcus, Diplococcus pneumoniae.

During World War I, Avery applied for the U.S. Army Medical Corps, but was rejected because he was still a Canadian citizen. He was accepted as a private, which qualified him for naturalization, and eventually commissioned a captain. Avery's wartime duties included instructing Army medical officers in the diagnosis and treatment of pneumonia. The work of his lab also extended during this period to research on respiratory diseases of interest to the military, such as influenza and secondary pneumonic infections.

After becoming a member emeritus at the Rockefeller Institute in 1943, Avery continued his research there until 1948. He then moved to Nashville to be closer to his brother, Roy Avery, a bacteriologist at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine. He died in Nashville on 20 February 1955 at the age of 77.

Adapted from biographical information provided courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

See also: Transforming principle.