Max Perutz

Max Ferdinand Perutz, OM (May 19, 1914, Vienna, Austria – February 6, 2002, Cambridge, UK) was an Austrian-British molecular biologist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962, shared with John Cowdery Kendrew for their studies of the structures of globular proteins. At Cambridge he supervised the PhD work of Francis Crick and James Watson in the Cavendish Laboratory as they determined the structure of DNA in 1953.

The scientist

In 1936, after doing a first university degree in Austria, Perutz became a research student at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, in a crystallography research group under the direction of J.D. Bernal.

Perutz was affiliated with Cambridge's Peterhouse College from his 1936 matriculation until his death. He was an Honorary Fellow from 1962 to 2002, and was seen at least weekly in the College's halls until just before his death. He took a keen interest in the Junior Members, and was a regular and popular speaker at the Kelvin Club, the College's scientific society. Perutz's contributions to molecular biology in Cambridge are documented in The History of the University of Cambridge: Volume 4 (1870 to 1990) published by the Cambridge University Press in 1992.

During World War II, Perutz was part of Project Habakkuk, a secret project investigating the recently invented mixture of ice and woodpulp known as pykrete, in the hope of using it to build an aircraft carrier. He carried out early experiments on pykrete in a secret location underneath Smithfield Meat Market in the City of London.[1][2][3]

Perutz established the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, England in 1962 and was its chairman until 1979. He remained active in research to the end of his life.

In 1953, Perutz showed that the diffracted X-rays from protein crystals could be phased by comparing the patterns from crystals of the protein with and without heavy atoms attached. In 1959, he employed this method to determine the molecular structure of the protein hemoglobin, which transports oxygen in the blood. This work resulting in his sharing with John Kendrew the 1962 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Robin Perutz, the son of Max and Gisela Perutz, is a professor of chemistry at the University of York in England. Their daughter Vivien has edited a selection of Max's letters for publication by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

DNA structure and Rosalind Franklin

During the early 1950s, Perutz supervised James D. Watson and Francis Crick while they were determining the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Watson and Crick made use of unpublished X-ray diffraction images taken by Rosalind Franklin, shown at meetings and shared with them by Maurice Wilkins, and of Franklin's preliminary account of her detailed analysis of the X-ray images included in an unpublished 1952 progress report for the King's College laboratory of Sir John Randall. Randall and others eventually criticized the manner in which Perutz gave a copy of this report to Watson and Crick.

It is debatable whether Watson and Crick should have been granted access to Franklin's results without her knowledge or permission, and before she had a chance to publish a detailed analysis of the content of her unpublished progress report. It is also not clear how important the content of that report had been for Watson and Crick's modeling. In an effort to clarify this issue, Perutz later published the report, arguing that it included nothing that Franklin had not said in a talk she gave in late 1951 and that Watson attended. Perutz also added that the report was addressed to an MRC committee created in order to "establish contact between the different groups of people working for the Council". Randall's and Perutz's labs were both funded by the MRC.

The author

In his later years, Perutz was a regular reviewer/essayist for The New York Review of Books on biomedical subjects. Many of these essays are reprinted in his 1998 book I wish I had made you angry earlier.[1] Perutz's flair for writing was a late development. His relative Leo Perutz, a distinguished writer, told Max when he was a boy that he would never be a writer. Thus Max highly cherished his having been awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science in 1997.

Books by Perutz

* Is Science Necessary: Essays on Science and Scientists.

* 1998. I Wish I'd Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Science, Scientists, and Humanity. CSHL Press. Includes an account of his adventures during WWII and selections from his notebook containing cherished quotations from other authors.

* Proteins and nucleic acids: structure and function.

* Science is Not a Quiet Life: Unravelling the Atomic Mechanism of Haemoglobin.

* Glutamine Repeats and Neurodegenerative Diseases: Molecular Aspects.

* Le molecole dei viventi. Rome: Di Renzo Editore. ISBN 8886044917

* Protein Structure: A User's Guide.


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  2. ^ Ramaseshan, S (2002-03-10). "Max Perutz (1914–2002)". Current Science 82: 586-590. Indian Academy of Sciences. ISSN 0011-3891. Retrieved on 2008-01-12. 
  3. ^ Collins, Paul (2002). "The Floating Island". Cabinet Magazine (7). Retrieved on 2008-01-12. 
  • Judson, Horace Freeland, 1995. The Eighth Day of Creation. Penguin. ISBN 0-140-17800-7
  • Olby, Robert, 2004 (1974). The Path to the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-486-68117-3
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