Early life and education
Born in New York City, Kornberg was the son of Jewish parents Joseph and Lena (née Katz) Kornberg, who emigrated to New York from Austrian Galicia (now part of Poland) in 1900 before they were married. His paternal grandfather had changed the family name from Queller (also spelled Kweller) to avoid the draft by taking on the identity of someone who had already completed military service. Joseph married Lena in 1904. Joseph worked as a sewing machine operator in the sweat shops of the Lower East side of New York for almost 30 years, and when his health failed, opened a small hardware store in Brooklyn, where Arthur assisted customers at the age of nine. Joseph spoke at least six languages although he had no formal education.
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 a 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.
Kornberg's 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.