US biochemist noted for his discoveries concerning the chemical structure of the pituitary hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, for which he won the 1955 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Du Vigneaud was born in Chicago, Illinois. After graduating in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1923, his interest focused on biochemistry; he worked at the Philadelphia General Hospital before joining the University of Rochester in 1925. He received his PhD in 1927 for studies on the structure of the protein hormone insulin. After brief spells at Johns Hopkins University and in Europe, he joined the biochemistry department of the University of Illinois, becoming professor (1932) and then head of department. In 1938 he was appointed professor of biochemistry at Cornell University Medical College.
Du Vigneaud's insulin studies revealed that the sulphur-containing amino acid cysteine forms disulphide bonds with adjacent cysteine molecules; these bonds are a major element in determining the conformation of the protein molecule. He went on to establish the chemical structure of the B-group vitamin biotin and to investigate the structure and synthesis of penicillin. However, it was his announcement in 1953 of the first artificial synthesis of the naturally occurring hormone oxytocin that was most significant. Oxytocin is secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland and causes contraction of involuntary muscle (hence its use for inducing labour) and triggers milk flow from the mammary glands. Du Vigneaud discovered that it was a peptide comprising eight amino acids. He followed this by successful structural analysis of another peptide hormone, vasopressin, concerned with regulating water balance in the kidneys. Both are now routinely manufactured for clinical use. Du Vigneaud worked on other aspects of protein chemistry, including transmethylation. He was latterly appointed professor of chemistry at Cornell University (1967–75).
Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945) — Science and Mathematics.