Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and
‘the godfather of molecular biology’

Maz Perutz (1914-2002) … Nobel Laureate, student of JD Bernal, and the godfather of molecular biology’

Patrick Comerford

During my lecture in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, this afternoon (18 May 2021), I was talking about the Limerick scientist John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), and his roots in Jewish Limerick and how his ancestry can be traced back to some of the leading Sephardic families of Europe.

I also discussed how two of Bernal’s students, Max Perutz and Dorothy Hodgkin, received Nobel prizes, when this honour was denied to Bernal.

The connection between Bernal and Perutz also called me back to my blog series, ‘Tales of the Viennese Jews,’ which I began in November 2019.

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I decided after my visit to Vienna a year ago to post occasional blog postings that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

Max Ferdinand Perutz (1914-2002) was an Austrian-born molecular biologist at Cambridge who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962 with John Kendrew, for their studies of the structures of haemoglobin and myoglobin. He also received the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1971 and the Copley Medal in 1979.

Perutz has been described as ‘the godfather of molecular biology.’ He worked under JD Bernal, the pioneer in X-ray crystallography, and also fostered the talents of his student Francis Crick alongside post-doc James Watson, who worked in his Cambridge lab before the pair discovered the structure of DNA.

At Cambridge, Perutz founded and chaired (1962-1979) the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), 14 of whose scientists have won Nobel Prizes.

Perutz was born in Vienna on 19 May 1914, the son of Adele ‘Dely’ (Goldschmidt), who was born in Vienna, and Hugo Perutz (1878-1958), a textile manufacturer who was born in Prague. His parents were from Jewish families but had baptised Max a Catholic religion. He later rejected religion but always said he was against offending others for their religious beliefs.

Max Perutz was a cousin of the Austrian novelist and mathematician Leopold Perutz (1882-1957), who was born in Prague, a contemporary of Franz Kafka. His parents hoped Max Perutz would become a lawyer, but he became interested in chemistry at school. Overcoming his parents’ objections, he enrolled as a chemistry undergraduate at the University of Vienna and completed his degree in 1936.

One of his lecturers, Fritz von Wessely, made him aware of the advances being made into biochemistry at the University of Cambridge by a team led by Gowland Hopkins. Perutz he asked Professor Herman Francis Mark who was soon to visit Cambridge to make inquiries with Hopkins about a place for him.

Mark forgot the request, but he had visited John Desmond Bernal, the subject of my lecture this afternoon. At the time, Bernal was looking for a research student to assist him with studies into X-ray crystallography. Perutz was dismayed as he knew nothing about the subject. Mark countered by saying that he would soon learn.

Bernal accepted Perutz as a research student in his crystallography research group at the Cavendish Laboratory. His father had deposited £500 with his London agent to support him. He learnt quickly. Bernal encouraged him to use the X-ray diffraction method to study the structure of proteins. As protein crystals were difficult to obtain, he used horse haemoglobin crystals, and began his doctoral thesis on its structure. Haemoglobin as a subject would occupy him for most of his professional career. He completed his PhD under Lawrence Bragg.

Perutz was rejected by both King’s College and Saint John’s College, and so he applied to and became a member of Peterhouse, saying it served the best food in Cambridge. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of Peterhouse in 1962.

Peterhouse, Cambridge … Max Perutz said it served the best food in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When the Nazis marched into Austria and annexed it in 1938, Perutz’s parents were in imminent danger because of their Jewish identity. They fled to Switzerland, but they lost all their money, and he lost their financial support. At the same time, his cousin the writer and mathematician Leo Perutz, who was living in Vienna, fled to Haifa.

That summer, Perutz was accepted as part of a three-member team to study the conversion of snow into ice in Swiss glaciers. His resulting article for the Proceedings of the Royal Society established him as an expert on glaciers.

Professor Lawrence Bragg at the Cavendish thought that Perutz’s research into haemoglobin had promise and encouraged him to apply for a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to continue his research. The grant enabled Perutz to bring his refugee parents from Switzerland to England in March 1939.

However, on the outbreak of World War II, Perutz was rounded up along with other people of German or Austrian background, and sent to Newfoundland. After several months of internment, he returned to Cambridge. Because of his previous research into the changes in the arrangement of the crystals in different layers of a glacier, he was asked for advice on whether commandos landed in Norway could be hidden in shelters under glaciers. In 1942, he was recruited for Project Habakkuk, a secret project to build an ice platform in that could refuel aircraft in mid-Atlantic. His early experiments on pykrete were carried out in a secret location underneath Smithfield Meat Market in the London.

After World War II, Perutz returned briefly to glaciology, and demonstrated how glaciers flow. He obtained support from the Medical Research Council (MRC) in 1947 for research into the molecular structure of biological systems, and set up the Molecular Biology Unit at the Cavendish Laboratory. The researchers attracted to this new unit included Francis Crick in 1949 and James D Watson in 1951.

While Crick and Watson were determining the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in the early 1950s, they 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 progress report for Sir John Randall’s laboratory at King’s College in 1952. Randall and others eventually criticised the way in which Perutz gave a copy of this report to Crick and Watson.

It is debatable whether Watson and Crick should have been given access to Franklin’s results without her knowledge or permission, and before she could publish a detailed analysis of the content of her report. Nor is it clear how important the content of the report had been for their modelling.

In 1953, Perutz showed that 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 haemoglobin, which transports oxygen in the blood. This work resulted in Perutz sharing the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with John Kendrew in 1962. Today, the molecular structures of several thousand proteins are determined by X-ray crystallography every year.

Perutz was able to suggest in 1970 how the structure of oxy- and deoxy- haemoglobin at high resolution switches between its deoxygenated and its oxygenated states, in turn triggering the uptake of oxygen and then its release to the muscles and other organs. Further work over the next two decades refined and corroborated the proposed mechanism. In addition, he studied the structural changes in a number of haemoglobin diseases and how these might affect oxygen binding.

He hoped the molecule could be made to function as a drug receptor and that it would be possible to inhibit or reverse the genetic errors such as those that occur in sickle cell anaemia. A further interest was the variation of the haemoglobin molecule from species to species to suit differing habitats and patterns of behaviour.

In his final years, Perutz turned to the study of changes in protein structures implicated in Huntington and other neurodegenerative diseases. He demonstrated that the onset of Huntington disease is related to the number of glutamine repeats as they bind to form what he called a polar zipper.

In his later years, he was a regular reviewer and essayist for the New York Review of Books, and he received the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science in 1997.

Perutz attacked the theories of philosophers Sir Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn and of Richard Dawkins in a lecture given at Cambridge on ‘Living Molecules’ in 1994. He was strongly critical of scientists who attack religion, particularly Richard Dawkins. Statements that offend religious faith were for Perutz tactless and simply damage the reputation of science. He once said that ‘even if we do not believe in God, we should try to live as though we did.’

Within days of the 11 September attacks in 2001, Perutz wrote to 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.’

Perutz was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1954, was made CBE in 1963, and he received the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art in 1967 and the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1971. He was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1975, and received the Copley Medal in 1979 and the Order of Merit in 1988.

Perutz became a Member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in 1964, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Vienna (1965). He delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture in 1980 on ‘The Chicken, the Egg and the Molecules.’

Perutz married Gisela Clara Mathilde Peiser (1915-2005), a medical photographer, in 1942. She was born in Germany, and she too was a refugee from the Nazis because of her Jewish-born father. They were the parents of two children, Vivien (born 1944), an art historian; and Robin (born 1949), a professor of chemistry at the University of York.

Perutz died on 6 February 2002, was cremated at Cambridge Crematorium and his ashes are buried with his parents in the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge. Gisela died 2005 and her ashes are buried in the same grave.

As for his cousin, the writer and mathematician Leo Perutz, he formulated an algebraic equation that is named after him. He grew increasingly uncomfortable with the new state of Israel and treatment of Palestinians, and he returned regularly to Austria in 1950s, spending the summer and autumn months in the market town of St Wolfgang and in Vienna. He died in the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl in 1957.

Leo Perutz wrote his first novel, The Third Bullet, in 1915 while he was recovering from a wound in World War I. In all, he wrote 11 novels, that gained the admiration of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Ian Fleming, Karl Edward Wagner and Graham Greene, and he translated the novels of Victor Hugo into German. His literary style has been characterised ‘as the possible result of a little infidelity of Franz Kafka and Agatha Christie.’

The corner in the Eagle where James Watson and Francis Crick announced their discovery in 1953 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tales of the Viennese Jews:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.

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