Hofmann Gave Biochem an Adrenaline Rush
Hurting? The hormone endorphin will dull the brain’s perception of pain. But while they’re essential to human self-preservation, little was known about hormones when Klaus Hofmann began studying them.
Scientists knew there were two main classes of hormones: steroid hormones, which are derived from cholesterol, and peptide hormones, composed of amino acids. But their molecular structures were just beginning to be understood when Hofmann joined Pitt’s chemistry department in 1944. Eight years later, he became chair of the new biochemistry department in the School of Medicine.
Hofmann went on to synthesize adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which helps to preserve crucial brain function during infections and traumas. Before then, no one had synthesized a molecule as large as ACTH, which is 39 amino acids long.
A demanding but caring teacher, Hofmann (1911-1995) reinvented his biochemistry course for Pitt first-year medical students every time he taught it, to keep his perspective and material fresh. He destroyed each lecture’s preparatory notes to ensure he never gave the same talk twice. But while he drove his students, the faculty members he supervised—and, above all, himself—hard, Hofmann also appreciated the finer things in life, such as playing the violin in string quartets and sipping good bourbon.
Hofmann won election to the National Academy of Sciences, among many other honors, but he advised colleagues, “You’re wrong to go after prizes; the only real way to do science is for the fun of it.” He resigned as department chair in 1964 to direct his own research institute at Pitt, the Protein Research Laboratory, where he pursued his work with ACTH, isolated the protein receptor for insulin, and determined how a peptide binds to a protein—a fundamental discovery that he considered his greatest achievement.