Max Perutz: Chemist, Molecular Biologist, Human Rights Activist

John Meurig Thomas

(Department of Materials Science, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3QZ, UK and Davy Faraday Research Laboratory, Royal Institution, London W1S 4BS)

In tracing the trajectory of Max Perutz’s life, future historians of science will doubtless highlight several great scientific adventures and achievements:

  1. He founded, with Sir Lawrence Bragg and John Kendrew, the Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit of Molecular Biology in the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, in 1947, and then he was the principal scientific architect of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), which he founded in Cambridge in 1962.

  2. Along with his associate, John Kendrew, he solved the first protein structures(1) (haemoglobin and myoglobin), and this earned them the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1962.

  3. Again, with John Kendrew, he founded the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) and became its founding chairman in 1963.

  4. By focusing on numerous mutants of haemoglobin from a large range of living creatures and numerous humans, he gained a deep understanding of several inherited diseases, enabling him to open up the new field of molecular pathology and adding to our knowledge of molecular evolution. He elucidated the nature of such tragic diseases as thalassemia and sickle-cell anaemia.

  5. In 1970, he finally worked out the mode of action of haemoglobin(2) and, in 1986, nearly a quarter of a century after his Nobel Prize—winning work, he discovered how haemoglobin acts as a drug receptor.

  6. As Francis Crick wrote in 2002,(3) Max Perutz was still the centre of the revolution in molecular biology that occupied the second half of the 20th century.

And the careful historian of science will also record that, in 1948, the 34-year-old Perutz solved the problem of how a glacier flows. (It moves, not like treacle, but more like a ductile metal when it is extended, with planes of atoms gliding over one another.)

All these, and many other scientific achievements, are associated with Max Perutz’s name. But to those who knew him, to those who worked or lived alongside him, to those who observed his quiet, effective negotiating skills, and to those who had the pleasure of talking to or corresponding with him, or attending his lectures, or of reading his evocative book reviews, essays and letters, there was far more to Max Perutz. He combined, in a singular fashion, all the noblest instincts of mankind.

Tribute paid to Max Perutz prior to the Max Perutz Memorial Lecture given by Professor Sari Nusseibeh at The International Human Rights Network of Academics and Scholarly Societies, Royal Society, London, 19 May 2005.

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