John M. Essigmann

View John's Authored Publications

John Essigmann is the William R. (1956) and Betsy P. Leitch Professor in Residence of Chemistry in the MIT Department of Chemistry and Professor of Toxicology and Biological Engineering in the MIT Department of Biological Engineering.  He was the Associate Head of the Department of Chemistry until 2012, responsible for graduate and undergraduate education, and from 2012 until 2019 he was the Director of the MIT Center for Environmental Health Sciences.  John was brought up in Medford, MA, a suburb of Boston and is a lifelong resident of the Boston area.

During his undergraduate years at Northeastern University, John worked in the chemistry group at Arthur D. Little, Inc., an industrial consulting company with longstanding ties to MIT. He  received his Ph.D. from MIT with Professor Gerald Wogan, a pioneer in the field of toxicology.  In the Wogan laboratory, John applied his expertise at the chemistry-biology interface to study the metabolic activation and DNA binding characteristics of aflatoxin B1 and related fungal toxins. These toxins are strongly associated with the lethal and cancer causing effects of natural products in developing areas of the world. Much of the work during this portion of his career was done in collaboration with Professor George Büchi, a chemist renown for his ability to make complex molecules by direct and elegant routes. George and Jerry, in addition to being professional mentors, became close friends of the Essigmann family owing to their mutual love of skiing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

As a faculty member at MIT, John used his abilities in chemistry to synthesize oligonucleotides containing DNA adducts formed by environmental toxins and chemotherapeutic drugs. His group developed a means to introduce these oligonucleotides into the genomes of viruses, which were then replicated inside cells. For a host of drugs and environmental carcinogens, the Essigmann group has defined the type and amount of mutations induced. They have also defined the genetic requirements for these mutational changes. Finally, they have applied similar techniques to probe the mechanisms by which the DNA damage formed by existing anticancer drugs cause cells to die.  The drug design strategy of "lethal mutagenesis" or "viral decay acceleration" of Koronis Pharmaceuticals is based upon work done in the laboratories of Lawrence Loeb, James Mullins and John Essigmann. Kronis' lead compound, KP-1212, has reached Phase II clinical trial status. 

John is a member of the American Chemical Society, American Association for Cancer Research, Society of Toxicology, American Society for Microbiology, and the Environmental Mutagen Society. He received the Campbell Fellowship for Graduate Study, and is a member of Sigma Xi and Phi Sigma. At MIT, he twice received the Graduate Student Council Teaching Award (1983 and 1984). He also received the School of Science Teaching Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Education (1996) and was appointed a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow for a ten year term (1997-2007). In 1989, he won a National Cancer Institute Outstanding Investigator Award, which covered all research activities and of his laboratory and most of his salary for a decade. He is a past chair of the Gordon Conference on Mutagenesis and a five-time CaP-CURE Awardee. He has won the Arthur C. Smith Award (1998), the Mutation Research Award for Scientific Excellence (awarded at the 2000 American Chemical Society Annual Meeting), and a Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Award (shared with K. Mitra in 2000).  In 2000, he also was elected to the National Association of Collegiate Scholars.  In 2004, Her Royal Highness, Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol, awarded John Thailand's Gold Medal for his research on problems affecting the developing world and for a teaching program he and Professor Ram Sasisekharan helped create in Asia.  John and Ram have taught in Thailand through the Asian Institute of Technology, Mahidol University and and the Chulabhorn Graduate Institute.  He received a MERIT Award from the National Cancer Institute in 2008.  In 2009, John was awarded a Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Award for his work with and support of underrepresented populations.  In 2020, John Received the Arthur C. Smith Award and in 2021 he received the Founders Award from the Chemical Toxicology Division of the American Chemical Society.  John is an alumnus and past Chair of the NIH Chemical Pathology Study Section, which has been renamed Cancer Etiology. He has served on many government-sponsored research review groups, most recently the Council of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

While the official home of John and Ellen Essigmann is now in Brookline, they lived for many years on the MIT campus as the faculty resident family in one of the MIT residence halls. The Essigmanns lived in MIT's Simmons Hall.  The building was designed by Steven Holl.  As Heads of House, the Essigmanns played an active role in the social life of the residence hall, advised students on academic issues, directed them to counseling in the event of personal distress and served as a liaison between the students and the faculty and administration of the Institute.  Ellen, as did John, received her doctoral degree from MIT and is well acquainted with the Institute as a living and working environment.  After leaving MIT as a student, Ellen worked for the next 15 years in industry. Her specialty is regulatory affairs, which is the process by which drugs and devices are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Ellen has been the Vice President for Regulatory Affairs at Parrs Pharmaceuticals and Director of Regulatory Affairs at T-Cell Sciences.  In the summer, Ellen used to work as a volunteer to run THAIROP, a program by which MIT undergraduates get to do summer research in the areas of environmental health, chemical biology and applied biological sciences in Thailand.  John also does research and teaches in Thailand part of each summer in the postgraduate program in Applied Biological Sciences at the Chulabhorn Research Institute.  John and Ellen's daughter, Amy Essigmann, is a lover of the outdoors, writing, photography and science.  As such, she studied at Dartmouth College, from which she was graduated in 2006 with a degree in English Literature.  After working for several years with professional artists on the imaging aspects of their work, she started in 2010 in the Design Department at Google, where she is now a Program Manager. Nolan Essigmann istarted his career working in Thailand with elderly and injured elephants, working in a chemistry lab, working in a particle physics lab, and traveling in Southeast Asia.  He was graduated in mathematics from MIT in 2015 and he now lives in Provo, Utah and works as the engineering manager at a healthcare company called Cortex Health.  When not at MIT, Dartmouth, Utah or Thailand, the Essigmanns can often be found at their cabin on Mooselookmeguntic Lake in Maine. The Essigmann cabin is also a place where one can often find the Essigmann lab members, who enjoy the out of doors almost as much as the rigors of hot tubbing.

John's Recent MIT or Thailand courses:

Biological Engineering Design (20.380)
Biological Chemistry (5.07)
Bioengineering and Environmental Health (Thailand)
Principles of Applied Biosciences: Systems Biology (Thailand)
DNA Damage and Genomic Instability  (20.213)