Norman Davidson, 85; DNA Research Pioneer


Norman Davidson, a groundbreaking Caltech chemical biologist who earned the National Medal of Science for his preparatory work in mapping properties of DNA and the human genome, has died. He was 85.

Davidson died Thursday at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena of unspecified causes after a brief illness.

When President Bill Clinton awarded Davidson the medal in 1996, he cited the scientist for “breakthroughs in chemistry and biology which have led to the earliest understanding of the overall structure of genomes.”


“Davidson’s research on DNA,” the White House statement said, “established the principle of nucleic acid renaturation, one of the most important principles in molecular biology and a primary tool for deciphering the structure and function of genes.”

The professor was a founding member of the advisory council to the Human Genome Project.

Davidson was not only prominent in his field for more than half a century, he helped create it.

Known for bridging the gap between physical and biological sciences, he developed new methods in physical chemistry and electron microscopy now used in genetic mapping.

“His movement into biology from a background in chemistry allowed him to play a special role in the development of molecular biology,” said Caltech President David Baltimore, adding that Davidson “symbolized the essence of the institute [Caltech].”

A fixture on the Caltech campus since 1946, Davidson officially retired from teaching in 1986 but served as executive officer for biology from 1989 to 1997, chairing the division briefly.

He continued his research until his death, driving about the campus in an electric cart. Davidson had held the Norman Chandler Chair of Chemical Biology, endowed by the family of former Times Publisher Norman Chandler.

Born in Chicago, Davidson earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Chicago and another at Oxford University in England as a Rhodes scholar, then returned to the University of Chicago for a doctorate in chemistry.

During World War II, he worked for the National Defense Research Committee Project at USC, for the Division of War Research at Columbia and the University of Chicago and then with the Plutonium Project in development of the atomic bomb. After the war, he worked briefly as a researcher at RCA and then joined Caltech to teach chemistry.

In 1980, he was named California Scientist of the Year by the California Museum of Science and Industry. He also received the Peter Debye Award from the American Chemical Society in 1971 and the Dickson Prize for Science in 1985.

Davidson is survived by his wife of 60 years, Annemarie; four children, Brian Davidson of Walnut Creek, Jeff Davidson of Cayucos, Laureen Agee of Mammoth Lakes and Terry Davidson of Poway; and eight grandchildren.