His primary research interests were in biochemistry, especially enzyme chemistry, the synthesis of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and studying the nucleic acids which control heredity in animals, plants, bacteria and viruses.
Arthur Kornberg was educated first at Abraham Lincoln High School and then at City College in New York City. He received at B. Sc. in 1937, followed by an M.D. at the University of Rochester in 1941. Kornberg had a mildly elevated level of bilirubin in his blood— jaundice due to an hereditary genetic condition known as Gilbert's syndrome—and while at medical school he took a survey of fellow students to discover how common the condition was. The results were published in Kornberg's first research paper in 1942.
His internship was at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York, between 1941-1942. After completing his medical training he joined the armed services as a Lieutenant in the United States Coast Guard, serving as a ship's doctor in 1942. Rolla Dyer, the Director of National Institutes of Health, had noticed his paper and invited him to join the research team at the Nutrition Laboratory of the NIH. From 1942 to 1945, Kornberg's work was the feeding of specialized diets to rats to discover new vitamins.
In 1953 he became Professor and Head of the Department of Microbiology, Washington University, until 1959. Here he continued experimenting with the enzymes which created DNA. In 1956 he isolated the first DNA polymerizing enzyme, now known as DNA polymerase I . This won him the Nobel prize in 1959.
In 1960 he received a LL.D. again from City College, followed by a D.Sc. at the University of Rochester in 1962. He became Professor and Executive Head of the Department of Biochemistry, Stanford University, Stanford in 1959.
Kornberg's mother died of gas gangrene from a spore infection after a routine gall bladder operation in 1939. This started his lifelong fascination with spores, and he devoted some of his research efforts to understanding them while at Washington University. From 1962 to 1970, in the midst of his work on DNA synthesis, Kornberg devoted half his research effort to determining how DNA is stored in the spore, what replication mechanisms are included, and how the spore generates a new cell. This was an unfashionable but complex area of science, and although some progress was made, eventually Kornberg abandoned this research.
The Arthur Kornberg Medical Research Building at the University of Rochester Medical Center was named in his honor in 1999.
Until his death Kornberg, still maintained an active research laboratory at Stanford, and regularly published peer reviewed scientific papers. For several years the focus of his research was the metabolism of inorganic polyphosphate.
The "Kornberg school" of biochemistry refers to Arthur Kornberg's many graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, i.e., his intellectual children, and the trainees of his trainees, i.e., his intellectual grandchildren. Kornberg's intellectual children include I. Robert Lehman, Randy Schekman, William T. Wickner and Ken-ichi Arai.
Arthur and Sylvy Kornberg had three sons: Roger David Kornberg (1947) , Thomas B. Kornberg (1948), and Kenneth Andrew Kornberg (1950). Roger is Professor of Structural Biology at Stanford University, and the 2006 laureate of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Thomas discovered DNA polymerase II and III in 1970 and is now a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Kenneth is an architect specializing in the design of biomedical and biotechnology laboratories and buildings.
Arthur Kornberg was married three times. His first two wives predeceased him. Sylvy Kornberg died in 1986. Arthur Kornberg remarried in 1988 but his second wife, the former Charlene Walsh Levering, died in 1995. In December 1998 Arthur Kornberg married Carolyn Dixon. She survived him.
When he was in his eighties Arthur Kornberg continued to conduct research full time at Department of Biochemistry at Stanford. He died on October 26, 2007 at Stanford Hospital from respiratory failure.