This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996
Pehr Victor Edman (1916-1977), biochemist and medical researcher, was born on 14 April 1916 in Stockholm, Sweden, son of Victor Pontus Edman, judge, and his wife Alba Edvina Fredrika, née Nordström. In 1935 Pehr entered the Karolinska Institute (M.B., 1938; Med.Lic., M.D., 1946) to study medicine. Interested in research, he joined the laboratory of Professor Erik Jorpes, spent a year at the Rockefeller Institute, Princeton, United States of America, and in 1947 accepted an associate-professorship at the University of Lund, Sweden. On 16 August 1944 at Kungsholm he had married Siri Barbro Theresia Bergström; they had a son and daughter, separated in 1957 and were later divorced.
In 1957 Edman came to Melbourne as the first John Holt director of research at St Vincent's School of Medical Research, an institution specializing in biochemistry. He remained there for fifteen years. At the office of the government statist, Melbourne, on 5 April 1968 he married his colleague Agnes Helena Cecilia Leux Henschen, a doctor and biochemist, who had also studied at the Karolinska Institute (M.B., 1954; Med.Lic., 1958; M.D., 1964). Associate-professor in medical chemistry at the Karolinska in 1965, she had been invited to join the research team at St Vincent's where she worked on unravelling the chemical structure of the blood protein fibrinogen. She was also an accomplished violinist.
A pioneer and major figure in the field of protein chemistry, in the mid-1940s Edman had become interested in determining the detailed structure of proteins and providing a structural explanation of their varied biological activities. Swedish physical chemists had only recently discovered that different proteins had specific molecular sizes and probably individual chemical structures. For his doctorate, Edman had isolated (from blood) and analysed the small protein hormone angiotensin which regulates blood pressure, but he realized that—as all proteins are made up of combinations of only eighteen amino acid 'building blocks'—it was essential to identify the order in which the amino acids were joined.
Edman conceived the idea of a series of three reactions based on the coupling of the organic reagent phenylisothiocyanate (PITC) with a purified protein. This reaction series would enable him to analyse any protein sequentially, amino acid by amino acid, and thus preserve the linear structural information necessary to interpret biological activity. At the University of Lund he had devised reaction conditions which were suitable for all amino acids and most classes of proteins, and which minimized side reactions. The method for protein structural determination was named the 'Edman degradation' by the Danish biochemist Kai Linderstrøm-Lang. Assisted by G. S. Begg, in 1961 Edman designed and built an automated instrument called a 'protein sequenator' to determine the structure of proteins by analysing the sequence of amino acids. The reaction scheme is still widely used.
Shy and somewhat aloof, with a single-mindedness that could look like stubbornness, Edman was not involved in scientific or academic politics in Australia; nor did he build up a large research group, although overseas scientists frequently visited his laboratory to learn his techniques. Close friends and colleagues appreciated his integrity, his humanism, his cultural interests, especially music, and his hospitality.
In 1965 Edman was granted Australian citizenship. Three years later he was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and awarded the Britannica Australia science prize. He won the gold medal of the Swedish Society of Physicians and Surgeons in 1971. Next year he moved to Germany, having been appointed professor at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry at Martinsreid. In 1974 be became a fellow of the Royal Society, London. He died of a cerebral tumour on 19 March 1977 in Munich; his wife and their son and daughter survived him, as did the children of his first marriage.
F. J. Morgan, 'Edman, Pehr Victor (1916–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/edman-pehr-victor-10097/text17821, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 12 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996