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Catalog Data

Physical Description:
polymethyl methacrylate (overall material)
overall: 53 cm x 58 cm x 52 cm; 20 7/8 in x 22 27/32 in x 20 15/32 in
crate: 36 in x 37 in x 32 in; 91.44 cm x 93.98 cm x 81.28 cm
Object Name:
molecular model
Place made:
United Kingdom: England
United States: New York, Bronx
Date made:
Description (Brief):
Professor Jonathan Wittenberg used this model of sperm whale myoglobin structure as a teaching tool at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in the Bronx. It was used beginning in the mid-1960s as part of his class on cell function, which would later come to be known as molecular biology. Wittenberg purchased the model from A. A. Barker, an employee of Cambridge University Engineering Laboratories, who fabricated the models for sale to interested scientists starting in May 1966 under the supervision of John Kendrew.
Between the years 1957 and 1959, John Kendrew, a British biochemist, was the first person to figure out the complete structure of a protein. For his breakthrough he won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, an award he shared with his co-contributor Max Perutz.
Proteins are large molecules used for a vast variety of tasks in the body. Knowing their structure is a key part of understanding how they function, as structure determines the way in which proteins interact with other molecules and can give clues to their purpose in the body.
Kendrew uncovered the structure of myoglobin using a method known as X-ray crystallography, a technique where crystals of a substance—in this case myoglobin—are grown and then bombarded with X-rays. The rays bounce off the atoms in the crystal at an angle and hit a photographic plate. By studying these angles, scientists can pinpoint the average location of single atoms within the protein molecule and piece this data together to figure out the complete structure of the protein.
Interestingly, Kendrew had a hard time getting enough crystals of myoglobin to work with until someone was kind enough to give him a slab of sperm whale meat. Myoglobin’s purpose in the body is to store oxygen in the muscles until needed. Sperm whales, as aquatic mammals, have to be very efficient at storing oxygen for their muscles during deep sea dives, which means they require a lot of myoglobin. Until the gift of the sperm whale meat, Kendrew couldn’t isolate enough myoglobin to grow crystals of sufficient size for his research.
Accession file
“History of Visualization of Biological Macromolecules: A. A. Barker’s Models of Myoglobin.” Eric Francouer, University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
The Eighth Day of Creation: The Makers of the Revolution in Biology. Horace Freeland Judson. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press: 1996.
Currently not on view
Credit Line:
Gift of Jonathan Wittenberg
ID Number:
Accession number:
Catalog number:
See more items in:
Medicine and Science: Chemistry
Science & Mathematics
Biotechnology and Genetics
Data Source:
National Museum of American History