Robert Bruce Merrifield Biography

Robert Bruce Merrifield, an American biochemist, was awarded the 1984 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking work in developing a methodology for chemical synthesis on a solid matrix. His innovative discovery revolutionized protein synthesis, greatly enhancing the efficiency of scientific experiments. With a passion for science from a young age, Merrifield earned a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of California at Los Angeles. He then joined the Rockfeller Institute for Medical Research, where he held various positions throughout his career, ultimately becoming the John D. Rockefeller professor in 1984. His research led to the development of solid phase peptide synthesis, a method that allowed for the systematic study of protein structure. Additionally, Merrifield created a machine for automation, further simplifying and expediting the process. In recognition of his contributions, he received numerous prestigious awards, including the Gairdner Foundation International Award, Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, and the Chemical Pioneer Award. Merrifield was also elected as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1972. He authored numerous papers for scientific journals and published a semiautobiographical book titled ‘Life during a Golden Age of Peptide Chemistry: the Concept and Development of Solid-Phase Peptide Synthesis’.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Bruce Merrifield
  • Died At Age: 84
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Elizabeth Furlong
    • Father: George E. Merrifield
    • Mother: Lorene
    • Children: Betsy, Cathy, Laurie, Nancy, Sally and James
  • Chemists
  • Biochemists
  • Died on: May 14, 2006
  • Place of death: Cresskill, New Jersey, United States
  • Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Chemistry
  • Cause of Death: Long Illness
  • City: Fort Worth, Texas
  • U.S. State: Texas
  • More Facts
  • Education: University Of California, Los Angeles
  • Awards: Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1984)

Childhood & Early Life

Robert Bruce Merrifield was born on 15 July 1921, at Fort Worth in Texas, USA, to George E. Merrifield and Lorene née Lucas. He was the only child of his parents.

In 1923, he along with family shifted to California. He graduated from Montebello High School in 1939. While at school he grew interested in astronomy and physics.

He later enrolled into Pasadena Junior College and at the end of two years, shifted to the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1943 he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry.

He then spent a year working at the Philip R. Park Research Foundation, assisting in research experiments on the growth of synthetic amino acid diets and looking after an animal colony.

Understanding that education was necessary, he returned to the University of California at Los Angeles to pursue his graduate studies under professor of biochemistry M.S. Dunn. He completed his PhD in Biochemistry in 1949.


Immediately after completing his PhD, Robert Bruce Merrifield moved to New York City to join the Rockfeller Institute for Medical Research. There, he worked under biochemist Dr. D.W. Woolley. Together, they worked on peptide growth factors and dinucleotide growth factor that later led way to the need for peptide synthesis.

In 1957, he was appointed as teacher at the Department of Biochemistry at the Rockfeller Institute for Medical Research, a post he maintained until 1966, when he became Professor. He continued as Professor until 1984. The Institute was renamed as Rockfeller University in the mid-1960s.

In 1959, Robert Bruce Merrifield pioneered Solid-phase peptide synthesis (SPPS) which later went on to become a standard method for synthesizing peptides and proteins in the lab. A few years later, in 1963, he authored a paper on Solid-phase peptide synthesis in the journal of the American Chemical Society.

Understanding the benefit of a mechanized and automated peptide synthesis process, he designed the first prototype of an automated peptide synthesizer in 1965. In the mid-1960s, as a result of work at his laboratory, peptide bradykinin, protein angiotensin, desamino-oxytocin and hormone insulin were synthesized.

The first synthesis of enzyme ribonuclease A was revealed by him and his colleague Bernd Gutte in 1969. This discovery gained significance as it demonstrated how the primary structure of a protein determines its tertiary structure.

In 1969, he also started working as editor of the journal ‘International Journal of Peptide and Protein Research’ (later renamed Journal of Peptide Research).

In 1984, he was made the John D. Rockefeller Jr Professor at the Rockefeller University. During the last years of his career he also an adjunct professor at the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine.

In 1993, he published his semi-autobiography titled ‘Life during a Golden Age of Peptide Chemistry: the Concept and Development of Solid-Phase Peptide Synthesis’.

Major Works

Robert Bruce Merrifield was a biochemist who was noted for his contribution related to synthesis of proteins and peptides from amino acids. He was known to have pioneered the ‘Solid-phase peptide synthesis’ methodology along with presenting the initial automated prototype for peptide synthesis. His studies made a direct impact on the progress of pharmacology, medicine and biochemistry thereby enabling the detailed understanding of the structure and functions of antibodies, hormones and enzymes.

Awards and Achievements

Robert Bruce Merrifield was the recipient of the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1969.

In 1970, he was awarded the Gairdner Foundation International Award. The same year he also received the Intra- Science Award.

He received the 1972 American Chemical Society Award for Creative Work in Synthetic Organic Chemistry.

He was inducted into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1972.

In 1973, he received the Nichols Medal.

He won the 1984 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his development of methodology for chemical synthesis on a solid matrix”.

Personal Life & Legacy

He married biologist, Elizabeth Furlong, in 1949 and the couple had six children; five daughters, namely, Nancy, Betsy, Cathy, Laurie and Sally and one son named James. He had sixteen grandchildren.

He died on 14 May 2006 after a long period of illness at his home in Cresskill, New Jersey.

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