Melvin Cohn

Professor Emeritus
Conceptual Immunology Group
(1922 - 2018)

Melvin Cohn
Salk Institute for Biological Studies - Melvin Cohn


Profile and Current Research

Melvin Cohn has been actively contributing to scientific research for 7 decades. He began his research career with the analysis of complex protein systems using physicochemical and immunochemical methodologies. This work included characterization of the lethal diphtheria toxin. The techniques developed during these studies were uniquely applicable to the emerging field of induced enzyme synthesis. He turned his attention to that field, establishing that these enzymes were synthesized de novo upon induction. In the course of these studies, he developed a family of compounds that made possible the analysis of induction, the revealing of the other components of the gene locus and the improving of isolation of bacterial mutants, a critical component of these studies. These studies enabled him to demonstrate the first example of an epigenetic system.

After close to 10 years working in the field of enzyme regulation, he turned to the problem of antibody synthesis. To this end, he established a murine myeloma library that contained lines of known specificity and could be manipulated in tissue culture. With this library, Cohn and his collaborators were able to prove his somatic hypermutation model of antibody synthesis. Byproducts of the library were antigen-presenting cell lines, macrophages and reticular cells. The most important of these lines are still being maintained. During this period, the Developmental Biology Laboratory, which he founded, made important contributions by revealing new classes of antibodies and by studying the pathway of their synthesis. The scope of his work is to be found in the accompanying publications list. The research of the Developmental Biology Laboratory ranged from structural studies of antibodies to the physiology of their expression.

After closing his laboratory in 1992, he established the Conceptual Immunology Group dedicated to theoretical investigation, which included computer simulation of aspects of immune behavior. During this period he brought up to date the original two-signal theory of the self-nonself discrimination, developed a new theory for haplotype exclusion, for TCR structure-function relationships, for suppressor function, etc. Again one is referred to the manuscript list.

At present he is turning his attention to neurobiology and to aspects of autoimmunity and immune response to cancer.

Education and Positions

1940City College of New York, B.S. Physics
1941      Columbia University, New York, M.A. Chemistry of Proteins
1949   New York University, New York, Ph.D. Biochemistry, Chemistry of  Immunoglobulins and other complex mixtures
1942 – 1946US Army, Pacific Theatre
1946 – 1949Predoctoral NYU Medical School, Department of Microbiology
1949 - 1955 Fellow, National Research Council, Institut Pasteur, Paris, France.
1955 - 1958Professor of Microbiology, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri.
1959 - 1961 Professor of Biochemistry, Stanford University School of Medicine, Palo Alto, California.
1961 - 1963Fellow, National Science Foundation, Institut Pasteur, Paris, France.
1962 – 2011Founding and Resident Fellow (Professor), The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California.
2011 – presentProfessor emeritus, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California.


Awards and Honors

  • Eli Lilly Award in Microbiology and Immunology, 1956.
  • Member of numerous NIH and NSF study sections in immunology, microbiology, and molecular biology, 1955-1990
  • Member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Molecular Biology, 1966-1968.
  • Member of National Science Foundation Advisory Panel on Molecular Biology, 1966-1967.
  • Scientific Advisor to CSIRO, Delhi, India, 1965-1970.
  • Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge, England, 1971-1973.
  • Jessup Lecturer, Columbia University, New York, 1972.
  • Bayne-Jones Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, 1975.
  • Member of the National Cancer Institute, Division of Cancer Biology and Diagnosis,  Board of Scientific Counselors, 1977-1978.
  • Visiting Fellow of the Basel Institute for Immunology, Basel, Switzerland, 1970-1990
  • Elected Honorary Member of the Scandinavian Society for Immunology, 1978.
  • Visiting Professor. Kyoto University Molecular Immunology Dept., T. Honjo 1995.
  • Head of the "Cell Distribution Center," a facility that provided immune-related cell lines to the scientific community, 1972 -1983
  • Syme Visiting Professor, The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research, Melbourne, Australia, 1980.
  • Elected member American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1980.
  • Jacques Monod Lecturer, Pasteur Institute, Paris, France, 1982.
  • Visiting Professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, Dept. Mol. Biol. 1982.
  • Professor at the College de France, Paris, France, 1983.
  • Organizer of scientific meetings in the areas of Immunology and of Cancer, such as "Antibody Workshops," "Hammer Symposia" and "Hammer Workshops", " La Jolla Immunology Conference". 1955 - mid1970s
  • Visiting Professor at the Centro Nacional de Biotechnología, CSIC, Madrid, Spain 1994
  • Member of: American Society for Microbiology, American Association of University Professors, American Association of Cancer Research, American Genetic Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, British S ociety of Immunology, American Society of Biological Chemists, American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Association of Immunologists, Genetics Society of America, New York Academy of Sciences, Society Sigma XI, Société Française d'Immunologie, American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
  • Advisor, National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi, India, 1978-1984.
  • Organized WHO courses in immunology to introduce the subject to Indian Research Workers, 1980 -1983.
  • Sandoz Prize in Basic Immunology 1995
  • Fogarty Scholar-in-Residence, NIH 1996-1998
  • Visiting Scholar at Gulbenkian Institute, Oeiras, Portugal, 1999-2005
  • Advisor Microsoft Computing Center, Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, 2008-2011
  • Knapp Lecturer, University of Chicago, 2012

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