Thursday, 1 May 2014

Remembering Max Perutz (1914-2002)


 
Max Perutz dancing with his wife Gisela at the 1962 Nobel ball

Image credit: Wikipedia

Not too many Fellows of the Royal Society or Nobel prizewinners have been drawn to Budleigh Salterton’s delights. So I was excited a few years ago to discover a genuine Budleigh scientist who’d remained faithful to the town of his birth and in 1862 settled here in retirement after an adventurous life on the other side of the world.  Henry John Carter FRS was deservedly honoured with a rare blue plaque on the wall of his house off Fore Street Hill.














Max Perutz was not a Budleigh resident. But he certainly helped to give the place distinction, and for that reason among many others I will be toasting his health on 19 May. It’s 100 years since his birth, recognised this year by Royal Mail which has honoured him with a stamp as part of the ‘Remarkable Lives’ series.  

Max Ferdinand Perutz, OM, CH, CBE, FRS, was an Austrian-born British molecular biologist, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with John Kendrew for their studies of the structures of haemoglobin and globular proteins. He went on to win the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1971 and the Copley Medal in 1979. At Cambridge he founded the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, 14 of whose scientists have won Nobel Prizes.  He was its Chairman from 1962 to 1979.  

Perutz’s  scientific career in Britain had begun 40 or so years before that date when he arrived as a student in Cambridge to work at the Cavendish Laboratory.  Born in Vienna, he had studied chemistry at the city’s University and had come to Britain in 1936, keen to work in the field of X-ray crystallography.  While at Cambridge he came into contact with a group of engineering students at Peterhouse College, one of whom was John Carter, a young officer in the Royal Engineers who just happened to live in Budleigh.  The engineering student’s father was amateur geologist and archaeologist George Carter. His sister was Priscilla, a co-founder of Fairlynch Museum, better known to Budleigh people as Mrs Hull.

Among George Carter’s geological  investigations in Budleigh were the strange nodules or grey balls of rock protruding from the cliffs, surrounded by pale green haloes of sand.  He had already established the slight radioactive nature of the nodules, and it was John Carter who suggested to his Austrian friend that the Cavendish Laboratory might have facilities sophisticated enough to enable proper experiments to be made.  

Max Perutz visited Budleigh and took up enthusiastically the study of the nodules, collecting some samples and examining them at Cambridge. He was keen to find an original subject for a scientific thesis, and was delighted to be invited to prepare an exhibition of the geological  specimens from Budleigh at the Royal Society’s formal Conversazione or evening party in May 1937 at London’s Burlington House. 

The event was not as successful as he had hoped, and not until 1939 did he succeed in having his research published by the Leipzig-based periodical Mineralogische und Petrographische Mitteilungen.  However Perutz’s dealings with the Budleigh nodules were a valuable learning experience for him. He seems to have found the work enjoyable compared with the crystallography projects that he had undertaken at the Cavendish Laboratory. His contact with top scientists in discussions concerning the nodules convinced him that he was destined for a scientific career.

Fifty years later, at a dinner given at Peterhouse College to celebrate his 80th birthday, he made a speech ironically titled ‘My First Great Discovery.’ He spoke of his gratitude to George and John Carter.  Priscilla Hull, who attended the occasion, remembered his exact words: “If you ever get to Budleigh Salterton  do walk westwards under the cliffs at low tide and have a look at the nodules. There also used to be a small museum exhibiting old Carter’s discovery.”

 











Mrs Hull was pleased to be able to tell him that the museum was flourishing, with a permanent display of the curious radioactive nodules and copies of his thesis on sale.

After his study of the Budleigh nodules Perutz went on to use the X-ray diffraction method to study the structure of haemoglobin crystals. His family fled from Austria in 1938, eventually coming to England. On the outbreak of World War Two he was interned, but returned to Cambridge and was involved in various secret wartime experiments because of his experience in studying crystal structures and glaciers.  One of these projects was Project Habakkuk, aimed at building an ice-platform in mid-Atlantic to enable the refuelling of aircraft. 

The study of haemoglobin was a subject which was to occupy Perutz for most of his professional career, and led to his becoming a pioneer in the new field of molecular biology, co-founding a world-class research laboratory and developing a technique to unlock the structure of proteins. Later in life he turned to the study of changes in protein structures implicated in Huntington and other neurodegenerative diseases.  He also developed a career as a writer on science and philosophy, taking outspoken stands on issues including religion and world peace.
 
All this was a long way from Budleigh Salterton and those funny looking pebbles. But visit the newly refurbished Priscilla Carter Room in Fairlynch Museum today and let your mind go back to those early days in the formation of a scientific genius. And if you’re young, and that way inclined, you might even decide to follow in the footsteps of the great Max Perutz.


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