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Max Ferdinand Perutz
Born May 19, 1914
Vienna, Austria
Died February 6, 2002 (aged 87)
Cambridge, England
Nationality Austria
Fields Molecular biology, Crystallography
Institutions University of Cambridge
Alma mater Peterhouse, Cambridge
Doctoral advisor J.D. Bernal
Doctoral students James D. Watson
Francis Crick
Known for Heme-containing proteins
Notable awards Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1962)

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 Kendrew for their studies of the structures of hemoglobin and 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 completing his first university degree at the University of Vienna, 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 Peterhouse, Cambridge's oldest college, from his 1936 matriculation until his death. He was elected an Honorary Fellow in 1962, 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 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; on Saturday, October 20, 1962 the award of Nobel prizes to John Kendrew and Max Perutz, and to Crick, Watson, and Wilkins was satirised in a short sketch in the BBC TV programme That Was The Week That Was with the Nobel Prizes being referred to as 'The Alfred Nobel Peace Pools'.

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.[4] 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.

The scientist-citizen

Within days of the September 11 attacks in 2001, Perutz wrote to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, appealing to him not to respond with military force: "I am alarmed by the American cries for vengeance and concerned that President Bush's retaliation will lead to the death of thousands more innocent people, driving us into a world of escalating terror and counter-terror. I do hope that you can use your restraining influence to prevent this happening."[5]


  1. ^ Gratzer, Walter (2002-03-05). "Max Perutz (1914–2002)". Current Biology 12 (5): R152–R154. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(02)00727-3. Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  2. ^ Ramaseshan, S (2002-03-10). "Max Perutz (1914–2002)". Current Science (Indian Academy of Sciences) 82: 586–590. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(02)00727-3. Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  3. ^ Collins, Paul (2002). "The Floating Island". Cabinet Magazine 12 (7): R152. doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(02)00727-3. Retrieved 2008-01-12.  
  4. ^ Max Ferdinand Perutz OM FRS - Nature Structural & Molecular Biology
  5. ^ Max Perutz and the Secret of Life, By Georgina Ferry. 352 pp., illustrated. Cold Spring Harbor, NY, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2008 ISBN 978-0-87969-785-3. p283 in UK version

Books about Max Perutz

Books referring to Perutz

  • Brown, Andrew, 2005. J. D. Bernal: The Sage of Science. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-199-20565-5
  • De Chadarevian, Soraya, 2002. Designs For Life: Molecular Biology After World War II. Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 0-521-57078-6
  • Dickerson, Richard E., 2005. Present at the Flood: How Structural Molecular Biology Came About. Sinauer. ISBN 0-878-93168-6;
  • John Finch; 'A Nobel Fellow On Every Floor', Medical Research Council 2008, 381 pp, ISBN 978-1840469-40-0; this book is all about the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge.
  • Hager, Thomas, 1995. Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-80909-5
  • Hunter, Graeme, 2004. Light Is A Messenger, the life and science of William Lawrence Bragg. Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0-19-852921-X.
  • Krude, Torsten, ed., 2003. DNA Changing Science and Society. Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 0-521-82378-1). Being the Darwin Lectures for 2003, including one by Sir Aaron Klug on Rosalind Franklin's role in determining the structure of DNA.
  • Brenda Maddox, 2003. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. ISBN 0-00-655211-0.
  • Olby, Robert; 'Perutz, Max Ferdinand (1914-2002), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Jan 2008
  • Matt Ridley, Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code (Eminent Lives). HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-082333-X.
  • Sayre, Anne, 1975. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-32044-8.
  • James D. Watson, 1980 (1968). The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Atheneum. ISBN 0-689-70602-2. Gunther S. Stent edited the 1980 Norton Critical Edition (ISBN 0-393-01245-X).
  • Maurice Wilkins, 2003. The Third Man of the Double Helix: The Autobiography of Maurice Wilkins. ISBN 0-19-860665-6.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Max Perutz (19 May 19146 February 2002) was one of the founders of X-ray crystallography of proteins, and in a broader sense of the fields of molecular biology and structural biology. Perutz was a Fellow of the Royal Society and was made a Companion of the Order of the British Empire in 1962. He was also an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Perutz, with John Kendrew, received the Nobel prize in chemistry for "their studies of the structures of globular proteins".


  • Could the search for ultimate truth really have revealed so hideous and visceral looking an object?
    • The Hemoglobin Molecule, Scientific American, 211, 65-76, November 1964.
    • This comment refers to the appearence of the low resolution structure of hemoglobin, which Perutz was instrumental in elucidating in a heroic effort that spanned 1937 to 1959. In the course of this work, Perutz and his co-workers developed many of the techniques that are used to this day to determine the three-dimensional structures of macromolecules.

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