The Discovery of the Classes and Structures of Immunoglobulin Molecules

Kunkel, Henry. 1973
Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

Antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins, are the body's key chemical defenders against infection. A central problem of immunology in the first half of the 20th century was to understand how these molecules could recognize, and help rid the body of, the many different kinds of infectious organisms. The key to understanding antibody specificity lay in the structure of the individual immunoglobulin molecules. Henry Kunkel's (1916-1983) fundamental research on antibody structure laid the groundwork for classifying antibodies and for the first mapping of immunoglobulin genes to their chromosomes.

Kunkel's initial idea came from a clinical observation in people with myeloma, a cancer of the antibody-producing plasma cells in the blood and bone marrow. Normally, plasma cells produce an array of different antibodies. In multiple myeloma, however, plasma cells that have become malignant begin producing just one abnormal antibody. Because large quantities of identical myeloma antibodies could be obtained, Kunkel was able to study them as a model for normal antibodies. Based on the structures of myeloma proteins, Kunkel and scientists trained in his laboratory deciphered the chain structure of immunoglobulins and antibodies, which allowed them to be divided into classes and subclasses. This far-reaching work led to the discovery of the high resolution structure of human gamma globulin by Kunkel's student Gerald M. Edelman, earning Edelman a Nobel Prize in 1972.

Henry Kunkel graduated from Princeton University in 1938 and received the MD from The Johns Hopkins University Medical School in 1942. He served in the Navy as a physician during World War II. In 1945 Kunkel came to the Rockefeller Institute, and he remained there his entire career, rising through the academic ranks to become full member (professor) in 1952. Among numerous awards and prizes, Kunkel received the the Gairdner Award (1962), Lasker Award (1975), and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (1977), as well as honorary degrees from the University of Uppsala and from Harvard University. He was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. From 1960 until his death he was an editor of the Journal of Experimental Medicine. In 1990, a group of Kunkel's former students and colleagues founded a scientific society, The Henry Kunkel Society, with the goal of fostering the development of clinical investigators focused on hypothesis-driven, patient-oriented research, particularly in the field of immunology.

A still-life oil painting by Stephanie Smith, a patient of Henry Kunkel's, whose serum was used to characterize the Sm antigen. From Biography of Henry G. Kunkel(1916-1983) and founding of the Henry Kunkel Society, 2001.

Selected Publications

Kunkel HG, Slater RJ, and Good RA. Relation between certain myeloma proteins and normal gamma globulin. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 1951, 76:190-193

Slater RJ, Ward SM, and Kunkel HG. Immunological relationships among the myeloma proteins. J Exp Med 1955, 101:85-108

Kunkel HG, Mannik M, and Williams, RC. Individual antigenic specificity of isolated antibodies. Science 1963, 140:1218-1219

Further Reading

Henry G. Kunkel, 1916-1983, An Appreciation of the Man and His Scientific Contributions, and A Bibliography of His Research Papers. J Exp Med 1985, 161:869-896

Special Issue for Henry George Kunkel on the Occasion of his 60th Birthday. Scand J Immunol 1976, 5:605-

Natvig JB and Capra JD. Henry G. Kunkel, 1916-1983: A Biographical Memoir. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2006


The Henry Kunkel Society