Robert W. Holley was born in Urbana, Illinois, in 1922. He received a B.A. in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1942, and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Cornell University in 1947. He also spent two years at Cornell University Medical College, where he participated in the first chemical synthesis of penicillin. After two years as an American Chemical Society Postdoctoral Fellow at Washington State University, Holley returned to Cornell University as an assistant professor of organic chemistry at the Geneva Experiment Station. In 1957 Holley began as a research chemist at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory on the Cornell campus. The majority of his Nobel Prize-winning research was conducted at the ARS laboratory between 1957 and 1964.
Holley rejoined the faculty of Cornell University in 1964 as professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and was chairman of the department from 1965 to 1966. In 1966, he moved to the Salk Institute and the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California, and in 1968 joined the Salk Institute as a resident fellow and professor of molecular biology.
The New York Times summarized Holley's award-winning research in his 1993 obituary:
"Dr. Holley was the first to unravel the internal structure in a strand of RNA, which helps determine what form and role each cell takes in a larger organism. Under the RNA's direction, building blocks of proteins become flower petals, fingernails, butterfly wings and every other living thing."
"The specific substance he analyzed was alanine transfer RNA, painstakingly derived from yeast. It took three years to isolate a 30th of an ounce of the material from 200 pounds of yeast and another four years to decipher the exact sequence of key ingredients in its 77 subunits. His findings were reported in a two-sentence abstract in a scientific journal in 1965: "The complete nucleotide sequence of an alanine transfer RNA, isolated from yeast, has been determined. This is the first nucleic acid for which the structure is known."
"The discovery was soon hailed as a breakthrough in understanding the basic chemistry of life."
In 1968, Holley received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his researchthe only ARS scientist to receive a Nobel Prize. He also received several other honors in his career, including the Albert Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research, the USDA Distinguished Service Award, and the National Academy of Sciences U.S. Steel Foundation Award.
Holley died in Los Gatos, California, on February 11, 1993.