In 1949, a research article was published in Science magazine. Dozens of papers are published every month, so the publication in itself is no big deal. What made this one paper special was that it announced a groundbreaking discovery: Sickle Cell Anemia is caused by a genetic protein deficiency.
A group of four scientists contributed to the research that backed this paper; notably, the renowned chemist and peace activist Linus Pauling was one of these scientists. It’s no wonder he is the only person ever to have received a Nobel Peace Prize in two different fields. Pauling was all over the place!
First, a short primer on Sickle Cell Anemia: it’s a genetic type of anemia (iron deficiency) characterized by sickle-shaped red blood cells, hence the name “Sickle Cell” Anemia.
At the time of the discovery that Pauling and his colleagues made, this research was the first time anybody had proven that Sickle Cell Anemia could be caused by proteins with abnormalities.
The group made this discovery by examining the red blood cells of people with Sickle Cell Anemia, as well as people without the disease. They saw that those with the disease had both the normal form of hemoglobin and a strange form of hemoglobin.
Prior to this discovery, those in the medical field had identified Sickle Cell Anemia as a disease, but they had no solid explanation for what exactly caused the red blood cells to form in the characteristic crescent shape.
This discovery is not only significant in the study of Sickle Cell Anemia, but in the field of genetic disease. By isolating the protein that causes red blood cells to become sickle-shaped, Pauling and his colleagues set the stage for the future study of genetic and hereditary disease, which is a huge field of study in today’s scientific landscape.