Max Perutz was a man of warm humanity and of great human decency and compassion. He had immense moral courage. He was morally incorruptible. And he possessed huge reserves of intellectual energy, as well as a youthful voracity for new knowledge. He was a stylish and incisive author of popular scientific articles and reviewer of books—books that he meticulously researched and fastidiously, though eloquently, analysed. He wrote charming and sensitive personal letters. Above all, he was an indefatigable warrior, passionately committed to social and political justice. Intellectual honesty and freedom, and especially human rights, mattered to him profoundly.
Max Perutz often exhibited the temperament of the artist and the imaginative sensibility of the poet. It pleased his many admirers, and Max himself, when Rockefeller University accorded him their first Lewis Thomas Prize, recognising the Scientist as Poet.
Max delighted in the beauty of the natural world. He was the kind of man who, before starting his laboratory work at the LMB on a Spring morning, would occasionally take a walk on the Gog-Magog hills (outside Cambridge), filling his heart and soul, in so doing, with pantheistic pleasure.
But Max was resolute in his opposition to what he perceived to be wrong-headed and erroneous arguments or decisions. Long before his work at Cambridge came to fruition—long before he made his monumental scientific breakthroughs—he felt impelled to resign from his post as lecturer in the University of Cambridge, as a protest against the decisions of the central authorities.
Another example of how forthright he could be is seen in his attack on certain philosophers and historians of science whose theses he disputed. Max rejected as nonsense the view, popular among modern sociologically oriented philosophers of science, that scientific truth is relative and shaped by a scientist’s personal concerns, including his or her political, philosophical, even religious instincts. When he attacked such opinions, he once quoted Max Planck’s memorable assertion:
“There is a real world independent of our senses: the laws of nature were not invented by man, but forced upon him by that natural world. They are the expression of a rational order.”
Max would probably have agreed with Richard Feynman’s flippant remark:
“Philosophers of science are about as helpful to scientists as ornithologists are to birds.”
Max’s long, labyrinthine path as a research scientist began when he studied chemistry at the University of Vienna, his home city. He acquired a special interest in organic biochemistry and heard about the work of Sir Gowland Hopkins, the discoverer of vitamins. Max decided that he wanted to solve a great problem in biochemistry. His teacher, Hermann Mark, visited Cambridge and had planned to pave the way for Max to join Hopkins’ group there. But Mark met J.D. Bernal, a pyrotechnically brilliant conversationalist, who said he would take Max as his