James B Sumner






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James B Sumner...James Batcheller Sumner was an American chemist. He was born November 19, 1887 in Canton, Massachusetts, the son of Charles Sumner, a wealthy cotton manufacturer and Elizabeth Rand Kelly. His ancestors were Puritans, who came from Bicester, England in 1636, settling in Boston. His father owned a large country estate. His grandfather owned a farm and a cotton factory.

As a youth he attended Eliot Grammar School and then Roxbury Latin School. While at school the only subjects that didn’t bore him was chemistry and physics. Being interested in fire-arms, he often went hunting. At the age of 17, while grouse hunting, he was accidently shot in the left arm by his companion. As a result he had to have his arm amputated below the elbow. He was left-handed and had to learn to do everything with his right hand. This forced him to try to excel in all sorts of sports; tennis, billiards, skiing, skating and clay-pigeon shooting.

He attended Harvard University, enrolling in 1906 and graduating in 1910 with a bachelor’s degree. He worked for a short period of time in his uncle’s cotton knitting factory, which didn’t interest him. He left to accept a teaching position at Mt. Allison College in Sacksville, New Brunswick. In 1911, he worked as an assistant in chemistry at Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Worchester, Massachusetts. In 1912 he attended Harvard Medical School and obtained his Ph.D. in 1914. He then went to work as Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.


Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

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While at Cornell University, Sumner began research into isolating enzymes in their pure form. He worked with the enzyme urease, which is the enzyme that catalyzes the hydrolysis of urea into carbon dioxide and ammonia. Sumner was unsuccessful for many years and his colleagues believed he was trying to accomplish the impossible. In 1921, he was granted an American-Belgian fellowship and went to Brussels to work with Jean Effront, who had written several books on enzymes. This didn’t pan out because Effront thought Sumner’s idea of isolating urease was ridiculous. He returned to Ithica, New York and in 1926 he was finally successful and demonstrated that urease could be isolated and crystallized. He also showed by chemical tests that the pure urease was a protein. This was the first proof that enzymes are proteins, which was controversial at the time. His work was ignored or disbelieved by most biochemists at the time.


Cornell University, Ithaca
Cornell University, Ithaca

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From 1924 on his laboratory was on the second floor of the new dairy science building, Stocking Hall. This was where he did his Nobel Prize winning research. Because of his research success he was given a full professorship at Cornell in 1929. In 1937, he was successful in isolating and crystallizing a second enzyme, catalase. Catalase catalyzes the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide to water and oxygen. John Howard Northrop of the Rockefeller Institute had obtained other crystalline enzymes by similar methods, the first being pepsin in 1929. Until this happened little attention had been paid to Sumner’s announcement of the enzyme isolation. Finally his work was acknowledged.

In 1937, he was given a Guggenheim Fellowship. He spent five months in Sweden working with Professor Theoor Svedberg. Also that year, he was awarded the Scheele Medal in Stockholm. In 1946, he shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with John Howard Northrop and Wendall Meredith Stanley. He was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1948.


Poet Robert Frost Talking to Guests at a White House Party for Noble Prize Winners
Poet Robert Frost Talking to Guests at a White House Party for Noble Prize Winners

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Sumner was married three times. His first marriage was in 1915 to Bertha Louise Ricketts, whom he later divorced. They had six children. In 1931 he married Agnes Paulina Lundkvist and in 1943 he was married to Mary Morrison Beyer.He died August 12, 1955 in Buffalo, New York of cancer.


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