Herb Boyer was born in Derry, Pennsylvania. He was a lineman on the varsity football team and was going to be a doctor. After high school, Boyer went to St. Vincent’s College and started with a “pre-med” curriculum.
It didn’t take long for Boyer to realize that being a medical doctor was not what he wanted to do after all. By the time he graduated college in 1958 with a B.S. in biology and chemistry, Boyer had decided on a research career. He did graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and then post-graduate work at Yale.
In 1966, Boyer accepted an assistant professorship at the University of California, San Francisco. He became interested in the bacteria E. coli, specifically in the restriction enzymes that could be isolated from E. coli. At a conference in Hawaii in the early '70s, Boyer met Stanley Cohen who was working on plasmids – rings of extra chromosomal DNA. The two began a collaboration that eventually led to the creation of the first recombinant DNA.
In 1975, Boyer met Robert Swanson who worked for a venture capital company. Swanson believed in the burgeoning biotech industry and in 1976, Genentech, Inc. was born. Genentech cloned and later developed the method for synthesizing human insulin using recombinant DNA technology. Genentech continues to be one of the biggest biotech companies in the world.
In addition to founding the company and creating the biotech industry, Boyer, along with Cohen, patented the recombinant DNA technique. This is one of the first biopatents granted, and it generated a lot of income for Stanford University, a claimant on the patent.
Boyer is currently professor emeritus at the University of California at San Francisco and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is also a member of the Board of Directors at Genentech, Inc. He and Cohen have won numerous awards for their discovery: 1996 Lemelson-MIT Prize for Invention and Innovation, 1993 Swiss Helmut Horten Research Award, and 1980 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, among others. Boyer is a member of the California Inventors Hall of Fame, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. He is an avid fisherman and enjoys the great outdoors. Boyer is also a pilot and a classic car buff.