The Bottom Line:

Look up the word "virologist" in the dictionary, and you'll see a picture of Wendell Stanley. If you've ever had a flu vaccine, dodged hepatitis, or eaten fresh farm produce, be thankful for Doc Wendell. As the most important American biochemist of the 1940s, Stanley essentially singlehandedly determined that virii were malformed proteins, alive and capable of reproduction. His crystallization method helped pave the way for all biochemists in dealing with all shades of viruses, and his intuitive approach to biochemistry still has repercussions for those unlocking the secrets of the smallest organisms on Earth.

The Rest Of The Story

Wendell Meredith Stanley was born in Ridgeville, Indiana on August 16, 1904. A gifted student, Stanley received his B.S. in chemistry from Earlham College in 1926. He also was a talented football player, earning All-Indiana honors and playing alongside Notre Dame's fabled Four Horsemen. Still, science beckoned, and Stanley moved to the more prestigious University of Illinois, where in 3 years he had gained his Master's and Ph.D.. At first, Stanley was content to remain as a professor at the university, but when the National Research Council named him a fellow and offered him a research post in Munich, he readily accepted. Before he left, however, he married his college sweetheart Marian Staples in July of 1929. There he worked with Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Wieland for a year on chemical components of genes, a precursor to modern day DNA research. He returned in 1931 and took a job as glorified gofer at the Rockefeller Institute. Here he had his first taste of virii, and he liked it. He began intricately studying the simpler virii that affected plants - in particular, the one that caused mosaic disease in tobacco plants. Stanley was the first scientist acknowledged to have recognized that viruses, despite appearing to be inanimate chemicals, acted and behaved as growing organisms. He also was the first scientist to crystallize virii (and thereby inoculating them), an important breakthrough in determining how to stop their spread.

Wendell was very attached to the institute, becoming an associate member in 1937 and a full-fledged one in 1940. His involvement with diseases and their cures earned him many awards over the years, including the Alder Prize from Harvard, the Gibbs Medal from the American Chemical Society, and a Presidential Certificate of Merit. All of these awards culminated in the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1946 (shared with two others). At his presentation, the presenter Arne Tiselius (a future Nobel Prize winner himself) said this of Stanley's work:

It seems as though (his) discovery may take us another long step forward along the road towards a closer understanding of the chemical nature of the vital processes, for apart from the fact that in extremely small quantities they can give rise to diseases, the virus substances, like the bacteria, have the capacity to reproduce themselves.

In 1948, after 17 years with the Institute, Stanley left to become chairman of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. One of the major points for landing Stanley was the creation of a new center for biochemistry and virology independent of a medical school. Upon completion, the building was named Stanley Hall, after the venerable genius. He also headed the virus laboratory there, eventually helping create and chair the Department of Virology at the college, the first of its kind in America. While at the laboratory, Stanley developed the centrifuge-based flu vaccine still in use today. Stanley also helped isolate the polio virus, enabling Jonas Salk to derive a vaccine in 1954. Stanley was named Director-at-large of the American Cancer Society in 1959, and served as an active advisor to the World Health Organization for over 20 years. In addition to his real doctorate, Dr. Stanley received honorary doctorates from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Mills College, Indiana, and the University of Paris.

Wendell Stanley, virologist and Nobel Prize winner, passed away June 15, 1971, in Salamanca, Spain while on vacation. He was 66. In 2003, the 50-year-old Stanley Hall was demolished to make room for the new $162 million Stanley Biosciences and Bioengineering Facility, the most advanced and innovative facility of its kind in the world. A fitting tribute to the man who first breathed life into the mystery of the virus and brought the world's smallest stage into the bright spotlight of science.


  • History/GPB Archive/Section - 5/M. Stanley/article_-_1.htm
For further reading, try Harvard historian Angela Creager's The Life of a Virus: Tobacco Mosaic Virus as an Experimental Model, 1930-1965.

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