Boris Magasanik

Born: December 19, 1919 | Kharkoff, RU
Died: December 25, 2013 | Cambridge, MA, US

Boris Magasanik begins the interview by discussing his childhood years, move to the United States from Austria just before World War II. Magasanik's graduate studies in biochemistry at Pennsylvania State University were interrupted by World War II, in which Magasanik served; he resumed his studies at Columbia University postwar and researched inositols and RNA. Magasanik discusses his career at Harvard University, as well as his time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Magasanik is still a faculty member and founded the Center for Cancer Research. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0186
No. of pages: 38

Interview Sessions

Sondra Schlesinger

Abstract of Interview

Boris Magasanik begins the interview with a description of his childhood years in Vienna, Austria. Shortly after graduating from the Gymnasium in 1937, Magasanik immigrated to the United States to live with his sister in New York City. It was still possible for Jewish families to leave Austria, and both Magasanik and his parents left the country. He enrolled in City College of New York, where he earned a B.S. in biochemistry in 1941. Hearing of its good reputation for organic chemistry, Magasanik decided to attend graduate school at Pennsylvania State University. While at Penn State, Magasanik was drafted into the U. S. Army to serve in the Second General Hospital. His unit was transferred to Oxford, England, where he remained until the spring of 1944. After his release from military service in 1945, Magasanik went back to New York and continued his graduate education at Columbia University, researching inositols and RNA with Erwin Chargaff. After his postdoctoral work, Magasanik went to Harvard University as the Ernst Fellow in 1949. After joining the faculty at Harvard, Magasanik and his students researched histidine and purine biosynthesis and inositol degradation. When he joined the faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1960, Magasanik continued his work on inositol degradation, studying enzyme pathways. Later, Magasanik researched histidine degradation in Salmonella and Klebsiella. In 1967, Magasanik became head of the Department of Biology at MIT, serving in that capacity for ten years. During his years as chairman, Magasanik helped found the Center for Cancer Research. After his chairmanship, he remained active in the department, helping to establish the Whitehead Institute. Magasanik concludes the interview with a discussion of MIT's teaching environment, financial support for research projects, and continuing as an educator after retirement. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1941 City College of New York BS Biochemistry
1948 Columbia University PhD Biochemistry

Professional Experience

Columbia University

1948 to 1949
Research Assistant, Department of Biochemistry

Harvard University

1949 to 1951
Ernst Fellow, bacteriology and immunology
1951 to 1953
1951 to 1956
Markle Scholar
1953 to 1955
Assistant Professor
1955 to 1959
Associate Professor

Pasteur Institute

Guggenheim Fellow

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1960 to 1977
Professor, Department of Microbiology
1967 to 1977
Head, Department of Microbiology
1977 to 1996
Jacques Monod Professor of Microbiology


Year(s) Award

Waksman Award, National Academy of Science

Table of Contents

Early Years

Attending grade school and Gymnasium in Austria. Leaving Austria for the United States. Attending City College of New York. Decision to attend Penn State. Getting drafted into U. S. Army. Serving in England and France.

Graduate Studies

Returning to New York. Attending Columbia University. Hans Thatcher Clarke and Erwin Chargaff. Inositol research. RNA research. Becoming the Ernst Fellow at Harvard University. J. Howard Mueller. Markle Scholarship.

Career Beginnings

First graduate students. Inositol degradation research. Researching enzymatic pathways in inositol degradation. Histidine and purine biosynthesis. Meeting Jacques Monod. Joining MIT. Environment at MIT.

Career at MIT

Histidine degradation in Salmonella and Klebsiella. E. coli. Salvador Luria. Becoming head of Department of Biology. Establishing the Center for Cancer Research. Whitehead Institute.


Teaching environment at MIT. Funding research. Continuing as an educator after retirement.


About the Interviewer

Sondra Schlesinger

Sondra Schlesinger is professor of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine. She received her PhD in biological chemistry from the University of Michigan and spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow with Professor Boris Magasanik at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked on enzyme induction and regulation in bacteria. She joined the faculty at Washington University in 1964, where initially she continued her research in the field of microbial genetics and physiology. In the early 1970s, she began her research work on the structure and replication of animal RNA viruses, which continues to this day. Dr. Schlesinger has over one hundred publications spanning these areas of microbiology. She was president of the American Society for Virology in 1992–1993, at which time she began her present interest and work in the history of virology.