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Wang Yinglai at Cambridge University
13 November 1907|
Jinmen County, Fujian, Qing China
5 May 2001 (aged 93)|
University of Nanking|
University of Cambridge
|Known for||Total chemical synthesis of insulin and tRNA|
Special Achievement Award, Miami Winter Symposium (1988)|
Ho Leung Ho Lee Prize (1996)
University of Cambridge|
Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry
|Doctoral advisor||David Keilin|
|Notable students||Li Zaiping, Xu Genjun, Hong Guofan, Liu Xinyuan|
Wang Yinglai (Chinese: 王应睐; 13 November 1907 – 5 May 2001), also known as Ying-Lai Wang, was a Chinese biochemist recognized as the first person to create synthetic insulin, a major scientific breakthrough that produced a biologically active compound from inorganic chemicals. He was one of the first group of scientists elected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1955. He founded the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry in 1958 and served as its director until his retirement in 1984.
Wang was born in Jinmen County (Kinmen), Fujian Province on 13 November 1907. His father, an Overseas Chinese merchant, died when Wang was two, and he became an orphan at the age of six when his mother also died. Against all odds, he pursued an education throughout the 1920s and 1930s, when China was mired in wars and turmoil. He graduated from the Department of Chemistry of the University of Nanking (Jinling University) and was admitted to the graduate school of the University of Cambridge in 1938, where he studied under Professor David Keilin. After obtaining his Ph.D. in 1941, Wang stayed to teach at Cambridge and conduct research at the Dunn Nutritional Laboratory. He transferred to the Molteno Institute for Research in Parasitology in 1944.
Wang returned to China at the end of World War II despite efforts by Keilin and Joseph Needham to persuade him to stay at Cambridge. Determined to help develop scientific research in China, he accepted a research professorship at the medical school of the National Central University in Nanjing, and later joined the Medical Institute of Academia Sinica in 1948.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Wang became deputy director of the newly established Shanghai Institute of Physiology and Biochemistry, under director Bei Shizhang. In 1955, he was among the first group of scientists to be elected to the newly established Chinese Academy of Sciences. In 1958, he established the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and served as its director until his retirement in 1984. In these capacities, he recruited many prominent Chinese scientists from abroad, including future academicians Cao Tianqin, Chen-Lu Tsou (Zou Chenglu), Wang Debao and Niu Jingyi.
Wang's most significant contribution was the total chemical synthesis of insulin. He started the project in 1958 with a team of scientists, who first synthesized the 20 amino acids that constitute proteins, and then used them to produce chains of insulin. His team successfully synthesized insulin in 1965, the first in the world to do so. It was a major breakthrough to produce a biologically active compound from inorganic chemicals.
Many scientists, including the Nobel Prize committee member Arne Tiselius and laureate Chen-Ning Yang, believed Wang's achievement in synthesizing insulin was worthy of a Nobel Prize. However, the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) intervened and the Communist government considered the Nobel Prize a symbol of Western decadence. Instead, Wang was held a virtual prisoner in a building at his institute and forced to study Mao Zedong thought. He was unable to conduct research for most of the ten years. During an interview in 1986, Wang told The Straits Times that "we were like the proverbial hare which took a long nap while others were not like the tortoise".
In 1988, William Joseph Whelan, the founder of the Miami Winter Symposium for Biotechnology, created the Special Achievement Award of the symposium and presented the first award to Wang. In 1996, he was nominated by many scientists for the Ho Leung Ho Lee Prize for Achievement in Science and Technology. When he won the award with its prize money of one million yuan, he used it to fund a scholarship for students at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Wang met Liu Runling (刘润苓), a student at Yenching University, when he was recuperating from tuberculosis in Beijing. They married and had two sons, Wang Jiahu (王家槲) and Wang Jianan (王家楠). Liu worked as a teacher and started a kindergarten. She suffered from Alzheimer's disease in old age and died in 1992.
Wang died in Shanghai on 5 May 2001, aged 93. Academician Xu Genjun eulogized Wang with a quotation from the Tao Te Ching: "The top class of virtue is like water, which benefits ten thousand objects without any demands for return."