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Nobel laureates Jens C. Skou and Paul D. Boyer die at 99

Biochemists were two of three who shared 1997 prize for work related to adenosine triphosphate

by Stu Borman
June 17, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 25


Two laureates who shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Jens C. Skou and Paul D. Boyer, died the same week, on May 28 and June 2, respectively, both at age 99. Both made key discoveries involving adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the universal energy currency of cells.

Paul Boyer in 1997.
Credit: Associated Press
Paul Boyer in 1997, after winning the Nobel Prize.

Skou was born in 1918 in Lemvig, Denmark. He earned an M.D. at the University of Copenhagen in 1944 and a Ph.D. in physiology at Aarhus University in 1954.

Jens Skou in 1997.
Credit: Associated Press
Jens Skou in 1997.

In 1957, while studying anesthetic drugs at Aarhus University, he discovered Na+,K+-adenosine triphosphatase. The enzyme helps maintain proper salt balance across neuronal cell membranes, setting up voltage differences that cause nerve impulses and muscle contractions. He retired in 1988 and was awarded half of the 1997 Nobel Prize for his 1957 discovery.

He was “a cornerstone and a beacon for research,” said dean of health Lars Bo Nielsen in an Aarhus University press release after Skou died. Skou is survived by his wife, Ellen, their two daughters and sons-in-law, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Boyer was born in 1918 in Provo, Utah. He earned a B.S. in chemistry from Brigham Young University in 1939 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin in 1943. In 1963, he moved to UCLA, where he became founding director of the university’s Molecular Biology Institute and managed the construction of the institute’s building, which was later named in his honor.

Boyer “had outstanding character,” says UCLA colleague David Eisenberg. “Everyone liked him and admired him. He was a modest and thoughtful leader.”

In the 1970s, Boyer developed a set of mechanistic proposals that described how the enzyme ATP synthase converts adenosine diphosphate and inorganic phosphate into ATP. For this work, Boyer shared the other half of the 1997 Nobel Prize with the researcher who verified his ATP synthase mechanism experimentally, John E. Walker of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Boyer donated a majority of his prize money to fund chemistry postdoctoral fellows at UCLA and two other institutions.

Boyer is survived by his wife Lyda, two daughters, eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. A son, Douglas, died in 2001.


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