Erwin Chargaff

An Austrian biochemist and author, Erwin Chargaff is best known for “Chargaff’s Rules” which lead to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure. He was born in Bukowina, Austria-Hungary, but today, his birthplace is referred to as Chernivtsi, Ukraine. He became an American citizen in the year 1940, and emigrated to the U.S. during the time when the Nazis were still very much active, and it was in the U.S. where he was able to come up with the discovery of thymine and adenine amounts in DNA were about the same as the amount of guanine and cystosine. This is now known as the third Chargaff rule and along with two others, more about the DNA has been known because of the biochemist’s work.


Early Years and Educational Background

On August 11, 1905, Erwin Chargaff was born in Czernowitz, in a place which used to be called Bukowina, Austria-Hungary to his father named Hermann Chargaff who worked as a banker, and Rosa Silberstein Chargaff. The First World War was at its peak during those years and his family had to move to Vienna. His father, who had owned a small bank, lost the business after the Great Inflation. Although his mother survived longer than his father, she had been a victim of the Holocaust.

He spent his high school education in Maximiliangynasium, Vienna, Austria and in the years 1924 up to 1928, he studied courses in chemistry in Vienna. Under the supervision of Fritz Feigl who is also a known chemist for his “spot analysis,” Erwin Chargaff earned his doctorate from Vienna University of Technology or Technische Universität Wien in the year 1928.

Chargaff’s education life was not limited to being educated in Vienna. He spent two years from 1928-1930 at Yale University as a Milton Campbell Research Fellow. However, he did not favour the environment there and returned to Europe after his short one-year stay as a scholar of Yale.


When he returned to Europe, he had a job where he became the assistant who was in charge of chemistry in the University of Berlin, where he also worked under the department of bacteriology and public health. He held this position from 1930 to 1933.

Erwin Chargaff came from a Jewish family and because of the new policies which were given by Adolf Hitler, Jews had been excluded to have academic positions. This caused Chargaff to resign in his teaching position in the University of Berlin.

Because of this even caused by the policy against Jews, Chargaff left Germany and travelled to France. There, he became a research associate in Paris at the Pasteur Institute. This lasted for a short duration only, from 1933-1935, and after his time at the Pasteur Institute, he went back to the United States where he would start his lifelong career that will earn him his recognition in the world of science.

Life in the United States

In 1935, Erwin Chargaff immigrated to New York and he was able to secure a position in the biochemistry department of the Columbia University where he worked as a research associate. A huge portion of his professional career was spent in this university. Just three years later, he became an assistant professor, and in 1952, a full-fledged professor.

He served as a department chair in the Columbia University from 1970-1974 and he retired as professor emeritus. After Chargaff’s retirement as the university’s professor emeritus, he moved his laboratory to Roosevelt Hospital and this was where he continued his work until the time he retired in 1992.

Scientific Contributions and Recognitions

Chargaff was able to publish several scientific papers which primarily dealt with studies concerning nucleic acids like DNA. He used chromatographic techniques in his studies, and his interest in DNA started after the identification of this molecule as the main basis of heredity. It was in 1944 when Oswald Avery had made that discovery and this had prompted Chargaff to make studies of his own.

His studies which lead to the development of the famous “Chargaff’s Rules” took long, and it was in 1950 when he was able to make the crucial elements which lead to the formation of his rules which are as follows:

First, that the number of adenine or A residues are always equal to the number of thymine or T residues;

Second, that the number of guanine or G residues are always equal to the number of cytosine or C residues;

And third, that the number of purines or A and G combined and the number of pyrimidines or T and C combined are always equal to each other (which is an obvious consequence of the first two rules).

Chargaff had also determined that the same findings hold true even if the ratio of pyrimidines and purines may differ from one kind of living organism to another. When combined with the findings of Rosalind Franklin about the diffraction studies on DNA, it was also determined how base-paring between A and T as well as G and C is what is behind the double -helix structure of the DNA and that no other combinations of these residues are possible. He explained the same findings to Francis Crick and James Watson who were then the ones who enlightened the world about the double-helix DNA structure.

Chargaff’s research had been the springboard of many biology and heredity studies. However, his studies were not limited to DNA-related concerns. He also studied lipids, plant nucleotides, inositol and amino acid metabolism, and about the enzymes responsible for blood coagulation. Despite not being credited for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA which won a Nobel Prize, Chargaff had many other achievements such as the Pasteur Medal in 1949, Carl Neuberg Medal in 1958, Charles Leopold Mayer Prize in 1963, Heineken Prize in 1964, and the Gregor Mendel Medal in 1973 among others.

Both he and his wife Vera Broido Chargaff died in New York. He lived alone for a few years in his parkside apartment, and on the 20th of June in 2002, he died in a New York hospital at the age of 96.