Werner Arber (*1929)

Professor of molecular genetics 

Werner Arber

Jane Gitschier, University of California
via Wikimedia Commons

Werner Arber was born in Gränichen (Canton of Aargau) on 3 June 1929. After passing Matura at the Alte Kantonsschule Aarau (school), he studied chemistry and physics at ETH Zurich from 1949 to 1953, obtaining a diploma in the natural sciences. At the recommendation of his physics professor Paul Scherrer, he moved to the Biophysics Laboratory at the University of Geneva, where, as an electron microscopy assistant, he discovered the still little-known research field of bacteriophages – viruses that specialise in bacteria. In 1958 he completed a doctorate on lambda phage mutants in Geneva.    

Establishing of the Biozentrum Basel

After various research stints at American universities in Los Angeles (USCLA), Berkeley, Stanford and Cambridge (Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT), Arber returned to the Biophysics Laboratory in Geneva in 1960. Two years later, he became a professor and in 1965 he was made an associate professor of molecular genetics at the University of Geneva.

After a one-year visiting professorship in Berkeley, he was appointed as a full professor of molecular microbiology at the University of Basel, where he was involved in establishing the new interdisciplinary Biozentrum.

Nobel Prize and other awards

Werner Arber's key discovery of the restriction enzymes was a major boost for genetic engineering in the 1960s. Restriction enzymes are able to recognise sections of DNA and 'crop' them. Along with Daniel Nathans (external link) and Hamilton O. Smith (external link), Arber received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for the discovery of restriction enzymes and their application to problems in molecular genetics" in 1978.

He has also received numerous other awards, including:

Continued work

Furthermore, Werner Arber served as Rector of the University of Basel from 1986 to 1988. For many years, he was a member and Vice-President of the Swiss Science Council and, from 1996 to 1999, President of the International Council for Science (ICSU), the global umbrella organisation for all science societies and academies. He retired in 1996.

In December 1981, an Evangelical Reformed Christian, Arber also became the first non-Catholic President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences since (external link) its foundation over 400 years ago.


Arber's Handwriting

Card from Werner Arber to autograph hunter Kristian Peil (ETH-Bibliothek, University Archives, Hs 442: 1, undated)


The ETH Zurich University Archives contains Werner Arber’s enrolment at ETH Zurich, a biographical dossier and the card depicted above.