Max Perutz and the secret of life

Max Perutz and the secret of life 

Georgina Ferry 

London: Chatto and Windus 2007 | 352pp | ?25 (HB) ISBN 9780701176952 

Reviewed by Derry Jones

Max Perutz (1914-2002) once described himself as a chemist who worked in a physics department on a biological problem. His friend, the brilliant Nobel prizewinner Francis Crick, described him as a very persistent plodder with considerable insight. His parents were strongly against him reading chemistry but, after sharing, with John Kendrew, the 1962 Chemistry Nobel prize, Perutz admitted that he was ’probably quite good at research’. 

Georgina Ferry, Dorothy Hodgkin’s biographer, recounts the patience, persistence, vision and insight Perutz needed to surmount (with Lawrence Bragg’s support) scientific and administrative obstacles to establishing the structure of haemoglobin. 

She explores entertainingly the career and character of this gentle, unostentatious hypochondriac, devoted to family, passionate about science, and affectionately admired by colleagues. 

Perutz left Vienna for Cambridge in 1936 to be a crystallography student of Desmond Bernal. Gaining his PhD in 1940, he suffered as an enemy alien before joining Bernal and Geoffrey Pike in the secret Habbakuk ice project. Pre-war and post-war research on ice crystals established Perutz’s reputation as a glaciologist. 

Post-war, Perutz attracted a remarkably creative interdisciplinary group in wartime huts until in 1962 the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology moved to a new building that became a world-famous centre under Perutz’s idiosyncratic chairmanship. 

Perutz loved art, music and literature. His carefully composed and partly autobiographical essays and reviews on science, discovery and scientists gained him a wider readership without the public recognition of Watson and Crick. Their DNA structure elucidation benefited from Perutz’s disclosure of unpublished data of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, over which Perutz later expressed regret. His last public talk was to be ’In science, truth always wins’. Ferry gives a fine account of a lifetime’s research by an engaging and humane scientist.