Issue Date: July 7, 2008
Getting to Know Max Perutz
Until I read the new biography of Max Perutz—"Max Perutz and the Secret of Life," by Georgina Ferry—I was like one of those people he described in a letter to a friend: "Many call me a famous scientist, but few know what I am supposed to be famous for."
I recognized Perutz' name from "The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA," by Nobel Laureate James D. Watson. Perutz was the head of the research group in which Watson and Francis Crick worked on the structure of the DNA molecule. I knew Perutz had won a Nobel Prize for something having to do with proteins, but nothing more specific. Having read Ferry's book, I now know much more about him, although the book's title may overstate the case about Perutz cracking the secret of life.
Perutz handpicked his biographer. Just weeks before he died, Perutz called Ferry to his hospital bedside to ask her to write his scientific biography. She was an excellent choice: Her credits include a biography of another crystallographer, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who was a longtime friend of Perutz' and a Nobel Laureate in 1964 for her structures of penicillin and vitamin B-12.
Because he died shortly after she agreed to do the book, Ferry was unable to interview Perutz. Luckily, his wife, Gisela, had saved a copy of every letter he wrote. Ferry quotes liberally from these letters and from transcripts and recordings of earlier interviews in lieu of her own interviews with Perutz. Combining the written record with interviews of people who knew him, she paints a complete picture of Perutz the man and Perutz the scientist.
Max Ferdinand Perutz was born in Vienna, Austria, on the eve of World War I. He was the youngest child in a family of industrialists. As a child, he suffered from poor health, contracting pneumonia twice and possibly surviving tuberculosis (no official diagnosis was made). Health problems continued to plague him into adulthood, particularly "tummy trouble," which was most likely celiac disease.
Perutz' family background gave no reason to think he might go into science. His family planned for him to study law and join the business side of its textile company, but Perutz had other plans. He had been bitten by the chemistry bug in high school, and he entered the University of Vienna in 1932 to study chemistry.
After taking an introductory protein chemistry course, he knew that he wanted to apply the tools of chemistry and physics to biological problems. His goal was nothing less than solving the secret of life, for which he thought that proteins would play a large role. In 1936, he left Vienna for England to study protein crystallography with John Desmond Bernal at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory.
His early financial support at Cambridge was solely in the form of fellowships. He supplemented those early fellowships with a job on a research team led by Gerald Seligman, a glaciologist. Seligman came to Bernal seeking someone who both understood crystals and could ski to help him study glaciers. As an avid skier, Perutz was probably the only person in Cambridge with both qualifications. Seligman and Perutz' meticulous work together resulted in publications in Nature and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London on the structure of glaciers and the mechanism of their flow. Ferry writes that the papers remain the authoritative word in that field. Perutz continued with glaciological research, but it was never more than a sideline.
So, why is Perutz famous? The book's short answer to that question is hemoglobin. Ferry writes that Perutz embarked on a career-long study of this oxygen-carrying blood protein in 1937.
When Perutz first arrived in Cambridge, however, he struggled to find an appropriate research topic. Ferry recounts how, on a visit home in 1937, Perutz took a side trip to Prague to visit Felix Haurowitz, a medical researcher who focused on blood physiology and particularly hemoglobin. Perutz left that meeting convinced that a crystal structure of hemoglobin could reveal how the molecule transports and releases oxygen in the blood. At the time, protein crystallography was in its infancy, and no one had attempted research on anything as ambitious as hemoglobin.
Solving the structure of hemoglobin ultimately took 22 years, Ferry writes. She describes how after many incorrect models and many innovations in X-ray crystallographic techniques and data interpretation, Perutz and his coworkers finally solved the hemoglobin structure in 1959. The work earned Perutz the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which he shared with his colleague John Kendrew, who had solved the structure of another oxygen-carrying protein, myoglobin.
Almost as important as his own research, Ferry contends, was Perutz' role in establishing in Cambridge the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology as one of the world's premier biological research institutes. He was instrumental in securing funding from the Medical Research Council and became the lab's first chairman. LMB was organized into three autonomous divisions, whose heads—Kendrew, Fred Sanger, and Crick—served on the governing board along with Perutz. LMB has been the scientific home of many Nobel Laureates.
According to Ferris' book, Perutz' hands-off management style gave the LMB division heads complete freedom in their research. Ferry writes that Perutz kept paperwork to a minimum and let the scientists focus on research. As an administrator, he spent as much as 80% of his time conducting his ongoing research into the workings of hemoglobin. He remained chairman of LMB until his retirement in 1979.
Throughout his career, Ferry writes, Perutz displayed an odd mix of confidence and self-doubt. His self-doubts may have been inspired by the perpetual uncertainty of his early positions, which relied solely on grant money to pay his salary. Until the establishment of LMB, he never had a permanent position at Cambridge, living from grant to grant, according to the book.
Winning the Nobel Prize seems to have alleviated Perutz' doubts about his abilities, Ferry writes. "For none of Max's fellow prizewinners in 1962 could the prize have meant so much. Now the outsider's anxiety was finally dispelled."
Near the end of his life, Perutz described his early feelings of inferiority in a radio interview: "I was a chemist but worked in a department of physics on a biological problem. There were all these clever physicists who knew more mathematics than I did. I always felt very small in relation to them and not all that sure of myself. But somehow the Nobel Prize told me I was probably quite good at research and that really boosted my determination to carry on."
Although there were the occasional hints of adventure in Perutz' life (internment in Canada during World War II for the simple fact of being an Austrian in England, wartime research on an aircraft carrier made of a composite of ice and wood, tramping on glaciers with Seligman), I must disagree with the book jacket description—an adventure story it's not. The book is, however, an evenhanded look at the achievements of one of the greats of 20th-century science.
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